The Oxford Psalms

Signum Classics SIGCD093

BBC Music Magazine

Kah-Ming Ng wears his rigorous scholarship lightly; his notes, sprinkled with contemporary quotes, enthusiastically introduce eight English composers, some little-known but all with Oxford connections. Much of the music is a stream of newly-minted response to unfolding text, not in itself memorable but a very beautiful generic style. Several though, by William Lawes and Child, alternate vivid description - of 'power', 'wrath', 'heathen furiously [raging] together' - with simple but deeply moving hymn-tunes returning to haunt the memory. Against some work-a-day functional music, Purcell's 'Since God so tender' stands out, its astonishing harmony oscillating freely between major and minor, voices shaping uneven phrase lengths - all over the simplest eight-note repeated 'ground'. The singers are ideal for the repertoire, unaffected voices with the mutual rapport of lay-clerks - as two of them have been. Rodrigo del Pozo has a colourful but easy high-tenor voice, Nicholas Perfect a remarkable resonance at the bottom of his range. Three harpsichord pieces including a 'ground' arranged by Ng and a voluntary by Albertus Bryne (in his day, 'that famously velvet-fingered organist') and a set of divisions for viol with theorbo accompaniment leaven the vocal music. Recording quality, in stereo rather than more spacious 5.1 surround-sound, is nonetheless excellent. Performance * * * * * Sound * * * * George Pratt

The Telegraph

These settings of metrical psalms for male voices and continuo show the extent to which English 17th-century composers were emulating the new declamatory Italian style, especially in their use of richly imaginative word-painting. A fine example of this is William Lawes's setting of Psalm 18, with its vivid evocations of flowing waves of wickedness, or Purcell's Since God so tender, a thoroughly Italianate setting of Psalm 116, overflowing with gentleness and mercy. Charivari Agréable give splendidly responsive performances of fine music whose revival is most welcome.

Goldberg vol. 47

On this occasion Charivari Agréable presents us with a selection of 17th-century English devotional music for three male voices and basso continuo. As Kah-Ming tells us in the liner notes, the program is a rather random sampling of this repertoire; the only link between the composers included on this recording is that, in some form or another, they were connected with the city of Oxford. Since this music was mainly intended for domestic performance by amateur musicians, it is relatively simple and lacking in contrast and intensity. However, Charivari Agréable nevertheless maintains the high standards of musicianship we have grown to expect. The vocalists delight with their excellent diction and spot-on intonation (the latter of which is especially evident in the dissonant passages of Matthew Locke's In the beginning, O Lord). William Lawes' The Lamentation is also worth mentioning for its beautiful sonorities and lyrical phrasing in both ensemble and solo passages. The continuo section of the group also works quite well; Sweeney's rich theorbo playing blends effectively with the sound of Ng's keyboards, while Heinrich's sensitive viol playing completes the texture with great success. Three instrumental numbers added to the program contribute some welcome variety. An anonymous Miserere from Parthenia-in-violata (c.1624) is on this occasion played as a harpsichord-viol duet, highlighting Heinrich's considerable virtuosity. Detailed liner notes and the use of self-made performing editions in the creation of this recording reflect a combination of performance and scholarship that is very rare. ?ak Ozmo


Musical genius works here to lift the word-settings to a higher realm "Oxford Psalms"? All the works here have some connection with Oxford, but actually the musical thread here is quite strong in itself. The well chosen works on this disc have in common an expressive communicativeness and sensitivity to text that bind the attention and at times impress deeply. It is no surprise that Purcell should emerge looking like the great master he was; both Since God so tender and Blessed is he that considereth the poor demonstrate his ability to make the most of every detail of word-setting and then lift his work to a higher realm with purely musical genius. But Blow's As on Euphrates' shady banks is no less sophisticated in its more prolix way, while William Lawes's bold chromatic fire shows him again to have been amongst the most worthy of Purcell's English predecessorsl his five psalms are intriguingly experimental, interspersing ardently emotional solos with plain hymn-tunes, sung in unison, with the odd unexpected harmony from the continuo. And even William Child, a composer not much recorded, cuts to the expressive quick with his chunky 1638 Psalmes, apparently England's earliest music with "continuall bass". Tenors Rodrigo del Pozo and Simon Beston and bass Nicholas Perfect bring plangent tone and textural intelligence to the music. The accompaniments themselves are exemplary, as are the short instrumental numbers. A must, I would say, for lovers of English Baroque. Lindsay Kemp

The ensemble Charivari Agréable is one of many groups in the early music scene but it stands out from the crowd. A magazine labelled it "one of the most original and versatile groups on the Early Music scene today". This disc testifies to that once more. It pays attention to an aspect of English music of the 17th century which has been almost completely overlooked. Its importance is twofold: firstly it presents religious repertoire written for domestic use, whereas most recordings concentrate on music which was to be performed in cathedrals or at court. Secondly it shows that the Italian style made an earlier entrance in England than many think. The Book of Psalms has always played an important role in the Christian Church. Whereas in the Middle Ages non-biblical texts were frequently used in the liturgy it was the Reformation which restored the predominance of the Psalms. As the Reformers believed that not only professional singers should sing in church but also the congregation, poets and composers collaborated in creating metrical psalms in the vernacular. These could be sung by common believers. The best-known example is the Huguenot Psalter which came into existence in the late 16th century. In England several collections of metrical Psalms were published from the end of the 16th century onwards. The present disc contains a number of compositions on Psalm texts, some of which are also metrical. The title is explained by Kah-Ming Ng in the booklet: "Most of the composers have some connection with Oxford, be it academic, professional, or, more tenuously, fraternal." It focuses on "sacred songs and non-liturgical anthems for domestic consumption, 'fitt for private Chappels or other private meetings', to cite a rubric from William Child's only publication 'The First Set of Psalmes of III Voyces' (1639)". Religious music specifically written for domestic use is a phenomenon which wasn't restricted to England: in Germany a large amount of this kind of music was written, in particular under the influence of Pietism. As far as the repertoire on this disc is concerned, the interesting thing is that here we find early influences of the modern Italian style which were largely absent in repertoire written for cathedrals or in secular music. Matthew Locke wasn't the only one who had a rather negative view on Italian - or any non-English - music as this quotation shows: "I never yet saw any foreign composition worthy an English man's transcribing." Therefore it is quite remarkable that William Child, one of the English composers of the 17th century who is now paid little attention, wrote that his psalms were "newly composed after the Italian way". And the pieces performed here show that he mastered that style quite well. It is a shame that only a small proportion of his collection is performed here. But the rest of the disc is equally interesting, for instance the compositions of William Lawes. They come from his collection 'Psalmes for 1, 2 and 3 partes, to the comon tunes'. The reference to "common tunes" has given rise to the suggestion that these psalms could have been sung in church, but there is no firm evidence to support this. The fact is that alongside free composed passages for solo voices Lawes also gives a simple melody, which seems meant to be sung by a congregation, and is performed here with the three voices singing unisono. The Italian influence, which even appears in Locke's music, is reflected in three things: firstly the three-part texture, in the way of the Italian trio-sonata, which results in settings for three voices, mostly alto, tenor and bass; secondly the addition of a basso continuo part; and thirdly the declamatory character of the vocal parts. Of course, Henry Purcell is the best-known representative of the true baroque style in England in the 17th century. He composed a number of devotional songs, two of which are recorded here. Neither these nor the piece by the hardly known George Jeffreys set metrical texts. The latest piece on this disc is by Jeremiah Clarke, who was a highly gifted composer who could have had a great career if he hadn't had a melancholic nature which finally led him to commit suicide. His hymn 'Blest be those sweet Regions' was written as he was sworn in - together with William Croft - as Gentleman-Extraordinary of the Chapel Royal. This hymn "is a veritable cantata in miniature, featuring an aria-like refrain, around which are woven arioso passages, presaging the arrival of Handel's Italianate idiom". Listening to the programme on this disc one gets a fairly good impression of how the Italian style gradually gained ground in a part of composing and music-making which took place more or less out of the limelight, and as a result is largely overlooked in our own time. It is the great virtue of this recording that this chapter in English music history is saved from oblivion. I am happy to add that the performers give splendid interpretations of this repertoire. There were times when I would have liked a little less vibrato, in particular from Simon Beston, but on the whole I thoroughly enjoyed the performances of both singers and players. In the unisono passages the three voices blend very well. All singers deliver the texts in true declamatory style, without exaggeration. They are well aware of the fact that this music was written for domestic use, which makes a display of virtuosity inappropriate. It was a good decision to use a tenor for the upper (alto) part, and Rodrigo Del Pozo has exactly the right type of voice for this. Various instrumental items are interspersed amongst the rest. Again they are rather uncommon pieces, performed here with imagination by the instrumentalists of the ensemble. I strongly recommend this disc, which is of far more than historical importance; it also has great musical value. I hope that this area of repertoire is going to be explored more extensively in the near future. Johan van Veen

Opera Today

Founded in Oxford in the early 1990's, the ensemble Charivari Agréable looks to seventeenth-century composers with Oxford connections as the basis for their recent recording, "The Oxford Psalms." In the case of William Child, the Oxford tie includes degrees from the University; in the case of William Lawes and George Jeffreys, the relocation of Charles I's court to Oxford would bring them to the "city of spires." (Lawes also served the Royalist cause during the Civil War--with tragic results--in an Oxford-based regiment.) Several of the composers, such as Matthew Locke and John Blow, provided music at one time or another for the "University Act," Oxford's Encaenia, at which honorary degrees are conferred. Henry Purcell's connection is more distant: his brother, Daniel, was the organist at Magdalen College. The music is, in the main, settings of metrical psalm texts, a significant reminder that although metrical psalms might seem to have a Puritan resonance in the popular mind, they were sung in both the Royal and Puritan orbits. The musical sophistication of the settings recorded here is a strong contrast to the simple congregational singing of psalm tunes, however, and this distinction is one that falls along the Royalist-Puritan divide. (The Lawes psalms unusually present the composed settings in juxtaposition with the unison "common tune," blurring the borders between the traditions. And though these juxtapositions are unusual, they recall both a degree of traditional psalmodic antiphony and also in alternatim practice.) If the recording is interesting in helping to chart the history of the metrical psalm, it is also interesting in the way it bridges the gaps in our understanding of the verse anthem. The verse anthem's reliance on solo singing is well known in early examples from Byrd and Gibbons; equally well known s the flourishing of the verse anthem in the large-scale "symphony anthems" of Pelham Humfrey, Blow, and Purcell towards the end of the seventeenth century. With the examples here from Child and Lawes we can fill in the space between and gain a new appreciation of the form's continuity. Many of the psalm settings are rhetorical in familiar ways, with ample text painting and affective musical contrasts to underscore the common antitheses in the psalms. The solo writing is occasionally declamatory, occasionally tuneful, but often it falls between these poles. In the later examples--Purcell, Locke, and Jeremiah Clarke--the lines unfold with an assurance that is perhaps less apparent in the earlier works, though the earlier pieces are no less interesting or demanding for it. The singers embrace this repertory with gusto. In certain passages, such as "Such is his power, that is his wrath he made the earth to quake" (Ps. XVIII/1), the strength of the vocal sound serves well. However, some will find the tenor sound overly vibrant, I suspect, and miss the clarity of simpler timbres. Of the three singers--Rodrigo del Pozo and Simon Beston, tenors, and Nicholas Perfect, bass--it is Perfect who offers the most memorable singing, not least with his unflaggingly impressive profundity! (And with texts like "who shall worship thee, O Lord, in the infernal pit?" [Psalm VI], the profundity is both unavoidable and delicious.) Various instrumental pieces are interwoven among the psalms. Susanne Heinrich's elegant viol playing in a set of divisions by Frances Withy is especially well done, with compellingly contoured, tapered sounds. The counterpoint between the instrumental pieces and the vocal works is a welcome one, and one might have wished for perhaps a more generous allotment to the players. "The Oxford Psalms" is a recording of interest, certainly, and a performance rendered with care. Steven Plank

All Music Guide

The presentation of this disc sells short what is really an innovative and beautifully performed program of seventeenth century English music. The connection of the music to Oxford, while it's there, is various, tenuous, not explored in any systematic way, and not particularly illuminative of the music. And director Kah-Ming Ng breezily terms the contents a "random sampling of seventeenth century English devotional chamber music" when it is in fact quite intelligently selected and sequenced. Leaving this matter aside, the disc is wonderful. What's distinctive about the music is not that it was related to Oxford but that it was "newly composed after the Italian way," to quote a publication of music by William Child, one of the earlier composers represented. The Italian way was to use a basso continuo, realized here by a small group led by Ng on a harpsichord or chamber organ, plus a group of interlocking melody lines, sung here by three male solo voices. The result begins to approach trio sonata texture, but, especially in the earlier works on the disc, the modern features of the music are combined with some distinctly old-fashioned approaches to the use of preexisting liturgical melodies. The effect is of something deeply traditional suddenly dressed up in modern clothing, and if one can understand why the works on this album are less well known than others by the composers who wrote them, one may also be delighted by the mix. One sees the stages by which the Italian style made its way into English music in the seventeenth century, and there are a couple of less-familiar Purcell gems from the century's end: Blessed is he that considereth the poor, especially, is a richly colored chromatic spectacular. Ng's group Charivari Agréable sets out to convey the quiet world of private worship in which chamber music like this was used, and for the most part they succeed; the male soloists (two tenors and a bass) infuse considerable expression into singing that is kept at very low dynamic levels. The sound environment keeps the singers strangely in the background: one can imagine that one was in an English castle chapel, standing to one side and not hearing the singers perfectly clearly, but the nice intimacy of Ng's performance would have been heightened if the singers had been permitted to approach the microphones a bit more closely. Whatever small flaws beset this release (and Ng's booklet notes are both erudite and entertaining), they don't interfere with the listener's enjoyment of some beautiful and off-the-usual-way repertory. ~ James Manheim,

International Record Review, July/August 2007-09-21

Charivari Agréable is one of the most versatile Early Music groups around at the moment. Under its benign Malaysian director, Kah-Ming Ng, it appears to be infinitely adaptable, finding musicians who can fit into any of its many and varied programmes. Here, for example, Ng and fellow instrumentalists Susanne Heinrich and Richard Sweeney are joined by a pair of tenors and a bass to offer what is self-deprecatingly referred to as 'a random sampling of 17th-century English devotional chamber music for three men and basso continuo'. However, it's not entirely random; as Ng points out in his eminently accessible booklet notes, the music was largely intended as 'sacred songs and non-liturgical anthems for domestic consumption', while there is an Oxford connection beyond the fact that Charivari Agréable is an Oxford-based group; all the composers represented here have some (albeit tenuous) connection with the place. William Lawes, for example, served with a military regiment based in Oxford during the Civil War (a posting which did not prevent him from being killed during the siege of Chester in 1645). Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and, knowing his background, we can detect in this virile and earthy performance of his Lamentation something of the arrogance of soldiers heading off for battle. Indeed, Nicolas Perfect seems quite sergeant-majorish in his dealings with the pleading Rodrigo del Pozo and Simon Beston; and, with hindsight, do we not have a premonition of Lawes's untimely demise in the sorrowful setting of verses from Psalm 50, Cast me not, Lord? Lawes, along with Locke, Blow, Clarke, Purcell and William Child, are probably familiar names to anyone with an interest in English church music. Less familiar will be the name of George Jeffreys. He served as a court musician in Oxford (possibly at Christ Church) during the Civil War, when the music was said to be 'performed there after a homely fashion'. His output may not have percolated down to feature as frequently in English cathedral music-lists as his more eminent contemporaries but it suits the homely style of this disc ideally, his setting of Praise the Lord, O my soule exuding great breadth and grandeur, the text given out in short bursts above a gloriously rich instrumental accompaniment. As ever, the instrumental playing from Charivari Agréable is beautifully crafted, neither excessively polished nor overtly boisterous, and there is a sense that here are musicians enjoying making music together above and beyond the enjoyment they obviously receive from exploring such a rich and varied repertoire. Beyond their accompaniment of the singers, the instrumentalists indulge in a few flights of fancy of their own. A totally inappropriately titled Miserere from an anonymous seventeenth-century composer (the notes suggest the title was appended 'more in hope than in spirit') seems overflowing with happiness, with some gloriously robust viol playing lending it a decidedly bucolic air. Ng's own arrangement of Christopher Simpson's A Ground for ye Harpsichord brings a touch of drawing-room elegance to this wonderfully varied and infinitely intriguing disc. Marc Rochester


William Lawes (1602-1645) 1. The Lamentation: O Lord, in thee 2. Psalm LI/2: Cast me not, Lord Matthew Locke (c.1623-1677) 3. In the beginning, O Lord Jeremiah Clarke (c.1674-1707) 4. Blest be those sweet Regions Anoymous 5. Miserere, from Parthenia in-violata (c.1625) William Lawes: 6. Psalm XVIII/1: O God my strength and fortitude 7. Psalm VI: Lord, in thy wrath John Blow (1648-1708) 8. As on Euphrates' shady banks Anonymous/Christopher Simpson (c.1602/6-1669), arr. K-M Ng 9. A Ground for ye Harpsicord 10. William Child (1606/7-1697) The First Set of Psalmes of III Voyces (Extracts) Psalm II: Why doth the Heathen so furiously rage Psalm IX: I Will give thanks unto Thee Psalm X: Why standest thou so far off Psalm: XI: In the Lord I put my trust Psalm CXLVI: Praise ye the Lord Henry Purcell (1659-1695) 11. Since God so tender Frances Withy (c.1645-1727): 12. Divisions in F George Jeffreys (c.1610-1685) 13. Praise the Lord, O my soule Henry Purcell: 14. Blessed is he that considereth the poor Albertus Bryne (c.1621-1668) 15. Voluntary 16. Matthew Locke: Let God arise William Lawes 17. The humble suite of a sinner: O Lord, of whom... 18. Gloria Patri et Filio

Charivari Agréable:

Rodrigo del Pozo & Simon Beston (tenor); Nicholas Perfect (bass); Susanne Heinrich (bass viol & consort bass); Richard Sweeney (theorbo); dir. Kah-Ming Ng (chamber organ & harpsichord)