Samuel Wesley’s father, the Rev Charles Wesley, started as an Anglican but with his brother John became one of the founders of Methodism. Samuel’s son, Samuel Sebastian Wesley, was a great reformer of Anglican cathedral music as choirmaster, organist and composer. Similarly beating out his own path, Samuel Wesley became first a Roman Catholic and later a Freemason. His compositions include large-scale choral works as well as orchestral, chamber and keyboard music. Little is performed and less recorded so that it is very welcome that Christopher Howell has produced this very well-filled disc of his organ music including no less than thirty-six tracks, an indication that many of the items are indeed very short – twenty are under two minutes long and only three are longer than four minutes.
The “Twelve short pieces for the Organ, with a full Voluntary added” were completed in 1816 and according to Philip Olleson’s splendid book on the composer (Boydell, 2003) was described by Wesley as “little tiney nimminy Pippiny Voluntaries”. There are in fact thirteen short pieces as well as a two-movement Voluntary consisting of an Introduction and Fugue. I make no claims in terms of their quality, but in character they resemble, say, Chopin’s Preludes in consisting of a series of very short movements in contrasting styles and character. Wesley’s delightful if disconcerting habit of allowing the music to go in directions which are far from obvious is very apparent here. They are sometimes heard in church as opening Voluntaries, especially numbers 8 and 9, rarely in closing as they lack obvious impact. All deserve to be heard more often, and they do work as a set. Howell’s performances are admirable here as throughout, with a delightful freshness, especially in number 9 which is more often heard in a thickened form as a Gavotte rather than the spirited Allegro we hear on this CD.
The second set of short pieces on the disc was compiled by Robin Langley from mainly unpublished items dating from throughout Wesley’s life. They are varied in character and style but in this case it is perhaps better not to listen to the group as a whole. Taken individually, however, they show considerable imagination and invention, as well as real charm, especially Nos. 7 and 9, the former dated 1797 and the latter one of the works the composer called simply “Scraps for the Organ”. The remaining items include two Fugues which at 6:32 and 3:07 are amongst the longest pieces on the disc. Yet again they do not do what you expect them to do, even if they are perhaps not amongst Wesley’s most successful compositions.
All of this music was intended for the organs found in England at the time. Pedal boards were not unknown but were restricted in compass and all of this music was written on only two staves. Christopher Howell uses an Italian organ built originally in 1832 by Felice Bossi but with reeds replaced in 1908. How it compares with the organs that the composer would have been used to I am unclear, but it certainly differs strongly from English organs of a later date. Its somewhat raw, at times almost primitive, sound does take a little getting used to, as does the individual tuning and voicing, together with occasional mechanical noise and the very apparent acoustic of the Church. Nonetheless it does not take long to get used to these things and to realise that its very individual character and pungency works very well in this music.
Christopher Howell provides interesting notes in the booklet and very helpfully includes the names of the editors and publishers of all the music. It would be good to think that this would lead listeners to try some of it themselves. That said, I would be surprised if the results would often match the excellent quality of those heard on this disc, clean but with occasional delightful decorations joining sections of the music and often with cunning changes of registration in repeated sections. When discs of this music are so rare it is good when one of this quality appears.