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;
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.
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
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
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).
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'.
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.
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
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.
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.