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Michael WISE (c.1648 - 1687)
Prepare ye the way of the Lord [4:27]
Christopher GIBBONS (1615-1676)
Verse for Single Organ [2:41]
Michael WISE
How are the mighty fallen [4:55]
Christopher GIBBONS
A Verse for the Organ [1:39]
Michael WISE
The Lord is my shepherd [3:40]
Matthew LOCKE (1622-1677]
[Verse] for the Organ [1:04]
Michael WISE
Service in d minor (Te Deum; Jubilate) [7:56]
[Verse] in D [2:23]
Michael WISE
O praise the Lord in his holiness [4:20]
Blessed is he that considereth the poor and needy [4:02]
Service in E flat (Magnificat; Nunc dimittis) [4:52]
The ways of Sion do mourn [7:37]
Awake, put on thy strength o Sion [5:06]
Christopher GIBBONS
[Verse] in a minor [1:16]
Michael WISE
Have pity upon me, O ye my friends [4:39]
[Double Voluntary] in d minor [3:40]
Michael WISE
Open me the gates of righteousness [5:50]
The Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge/Geoffrey Webber
Geoffrey Webber; Thomas Hewitt Jones; David Ballantyne (organ)
rec. 30 June, 1-2 July 2007, Chapel of Pembroke College, Cambridge, UK. DDD
DELPHIAN DCD34041 [70:15]
Experience Classicsonline

Geoffrey Webber seems to have a special interest in neglected sacred music from 17th century England. This disc is the third to feature such music, after recordings of sacred works by William Child (1606-1697) and William Turner (1651-1740; see review). With Michael Wise they have in common that they were all active as composers in the Restoration period, following the Commonwealth when church music in English cathedrals was forbidden.
Michael Wise was directly connected to the Restoration as he was one of the trebles in the Chapel Royal which was restored when the Commonwealth came to an end in 1660. He left the chapel as his voice broke, in 1663, and from 1665 to 1668 he was lay clerk of St George's Chapel, Windsor, and of Eton College. In 1668 he was appointed organist, lay vicar and instructor of the choristers of Salisbury Cathedral, in the city of his birth. In 1676 he joined the Chapel Royal again, this time as Gentleman, and in 1687 he was given another important job: master of the choristers of St Paul's Cathedral. But before he could take up that position he died.
His career shows that his abilities were never in doubt. Also the dissemination of his compositions testify that he was held in high esteem. This is in strong contrast to his reputation as a human being. It seems that he was a difficult character, who caused trouble almost everywhere he worked. He was accused of neglecting his duties, of drunkenness and other things considered inappropriate. "Yet Wise's church music betrays nothing of his erratic temperament. Ian Spink has noted how his music 'shows restraint and a sense of decorum'", Geoffrey Webber writes in his programme notes.
The music on this disc supports that view. Wise doesn't use instruments in his anthems: all of them are for voices with support of just the organ. There is certainly some text expression, but Wise doesn't usually set the texts in a declamatory manner. Another difference with composers of his time is that many verses are given to treble voices rather than lower voices (alto, tenor or bass).
A good example of text expression in Wise's anthems is the use of chromaticism on the word "mourn" in the anthem 'The ways of Sion do mourn'. This drew the admiration of Charles Burney about a hundred years after. Another example is the lively declamatory setting of the phrase "we will rejoice" in 'Open me the gates of righteousness'.
It is always interesting to hear music which is hardly known, and that is certainly the case here. This disc demonstrates that Wise's music is unjustly neglected, and one can only hope that more ensembles and choirs will include some of his compositions in their repertoire. It is a shame, though, that the Choir of Gonville and Caius College doesn't serve Wise's music all that well.
First of all I have some problems with the density of the sound of the choir which lacks the clarity of, in particular, their all-male counterparts. Much more problematic, though, are the contributions of the soloists in the verses of the anthems and services. They are all members of the choir, and they are certainly very good singers. But I find the constant use of sometimes pretty wide vibrato very annoying. It is out of place in this kind of music, and it also damages the overall sound in passages for two or more solo voices. In 'The Lord is my shepherd' the two sopranos use very little vibrato, and as a result this piece is one of the best on this disc. Apart from the use of vibrato some voices don't blend well. You can hear this in 'The ways of Sion do mourn', where the soft-grained voice of the soprano and the rather harsh and loud voice of the bass just don't match.
It is really disappointing that this programme doesn't come off better, the more so as not only the music by Wise deserves to be performed, but also because of the way the programme has been put together. The organ pieces are mostly used as a kind of 'intonation', to prepare the mood and the key of the vocal items which follow. These pieces are all of splendid quality in themselves and are all well played.
It is not just that I happen to prefer a performance by an all-male choir, for historical and artistic reasons, I also believe that some of these college or cathedral choirs could do much better in this repertoire, like the choirs of St Paul's Cathedral in London, St John's College in Cambridge or New College in Oxford - to mention just a few. I sincerely hope that they will turn their interest to the music of Michael Wise some day, and delight us with really satisfying performances of his anthems and services.
Johan van Veen


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