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Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810 - 1876)
Ascribe unto the Lord - Sacred choral works
Blessed be the God and Father, anthem for four-part choir and organ [7:23]
Wash me throughly from my wickedness, anthem for four-part choir and organ [4:35]
Ascribe unto the Lord, anthem for four-part choir and organ [14:00]
Samuel WESLEY (1766-1837)
Psalms 42 and 43, Psalm chant for four-part choir and organ [7:27]
Samuel Sebastian WESLEY
Morning and Evening Service in E:
Magnificat for eight-part choir and organ [6:46]
Nunc dimittis for eight-part choir and organ [3:24]
The wilderness and the solitary place, anthem for five-part choir and organ [12:38]
Larghetto for organ in f sharp minor [5:54]
O give thanks unto the Lord, anthem for five-part choir and organ [8:12]
O Thou who camest from above, hymn for four-part choir and organ [2:41]
Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, anthem for five-part choir and organ [3:55]
Choir of St John's College, Cambridge/Andrew Nethsingha; John Challenger (organ)
rec. 20-22 April 2012, chapel of St John's College, Cambridge, UK. DDD
Lyrics included
CHANDOS CHAN 10751 [77:10]

Samuel Sebastian Wesley today belongs among the icons of English church music, and regular listeners to BBC Radio 3's Choral Evensong will know many of his compositions. In his own time he was in constant conflict with the ecclesiastical authorities and his style of composition met severe criticism. He in his turn expressed his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in liturgical music and did so in no uncertain terms. 

He was born into a musical family. His father Samuel was close to Mendelssohn who was also largely responsible for the introduction of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach to England. Out of admiration for Bach Wesley gave his son the second name of Sebastian. His grandfather Charles, although a clergyman, was also involved in music, especially as a writer of hymns, of which he is said to have written over eight thousand. He was the brother of John, the founder of Methodism.
 
Samuel Sebastian sang as a chorister in the Chapel Royal, but as an adult started working as a choral conductor in London and as a free-lance pianist. In the latter capacity he worked at the English Opera House and later Covent Garden. His career in the church began in 1832 when he was appointed organist of Hereford Cathedral. It was the beginning of a journey through a procession of cathedrals, largely following the same pattern: success at first, but soon turning into conflict. In 1835 he moved to Exeter Cathedral, then to Leeds Parish Church in 1842. From 1849 to 1865 he worked at Winchester Cathedral and he ended his career at Gloucester Cathedral (1865-1876). Apart from his views on church music which were not in line with common opinions, he had a rather difficult character, something which seems to have run in the family.
 
The present disc includes compositions from various stages in his life and of contrasting character. It is regrettable that most of them are fairly well-known and have been recorded various times before. It should surely have been possible to find some compositions in his oeuvre that were less familiar.
 
One of those which caused controversy was The wilderness and the solitary place. This is often compared with an operatic scena, and may well have been influenced by Wesley's experiences in the music theatre. A contemporary critic judged that it was "no church music". It was written during his time in Hereford, on the occasion of the inauguration of the new organ in 1832. This is the reason Wesley gave the organ so much prominence. At various points it seems to take on the role of a complete orchestra, reflecting the new style in organ building at the time - the so-called 'symphonic' organ which was also in vogue in France. The extended organ part also allowed for dramatic effects. The second section, which is an aria for bass, feels operatic. The third opens with a recitative on "Then shall the lame man leap as an hart", which seems to be a reference to the corresponding recitative in Handel's Messiah.
 
Also in his Hereford period Wesley composed the anthem Blessed be the God and Father. It is another example of the organ playing a dramatic part. Here we also find some quite daring harmonies. The crescendo in the opening section, culminating in the phrase "by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" sung at full power is quite telling.
 
During his time in Leeds he composed a complete Morning and Evening Service from which the Magnificat and the Nunc dimittis are taken. The differences between these two texts are reflected in Wesley's setting: the Magnificat is considerably more dramatic, for instance in the description of the mighty and the proud. From the same period dates Wash me throughly from my wickedness which shows the influence of continental romanticism. Some even call this anthem sentimental. Some years earlier Wesley composed O give thanks unto the Lord which includes some reminiscences. Its central piece is a solo for treble. These two anthems are considerably more restrained and sober than pieces like The wilderness. The same is true of Thou wilt keep them in perfect peace. This anthem is pretty close to the late renaissance full anthem.
 
Ascribe it unto the Lord was written in Winchester and shows a return to the structure of The wilderness. It is less dramatic, although Wesley later orchestrated both. The text is effectively expressed in the music, for instance through the contrasts in scoring between the second and third sections. In the former the name of the Lord is praised, by three trebles, alto and tenor, whereas the third, describing the "gods of the heathen", is set for alto, two tenors and bass. The anthem's opening with the men's voices alone is quite impressive and an excellent depiction of the text.
 
This disc includes two pieces which reflect a specific feature of Anglican church music: the hymn and the chant. The former is represented by O Thou who camest from above. The melody is known as 'Hereford', referring to the place where it was written. The text is by Sebastian's grandfather Charles. The chant is represented by Psalms 42 and 43, in a setting by Sebastian's father Samuel. This form is quite familiar to most English listeners, I assume. However, this production is also aimed at the international market, and therefore some explanation of this practice in the liner-notes would have been useful.
 
The Choir of St John's College, Cambridge was one of the first British college and cathedral choirs which adopted a 'continental' sound. Under its legendary conductor George Guest it had already moved away from the ethereal, 'Victorian' sound of the trebles. This approach has been kept alive under his successors and is well suited to the choral music of Samuel Sebastian Wesley. The dramatic elements are fully conveyed, and the contrasts are well worked out. The trebles are very fine, although in the first pieces I found them a bit weak. Peter Hicks is particularly good in the solo section from O give thanks unto the Lord, and the bass Basil McDonald delivers a convincing performance of the solo aria in The wilderness. I should not forget to mention John Challenger who gives good support to the choir and contributes a solo piece from the relatively small output for organ.
 
As an introduction to the oeuvre of Wesley this disc is an unequivocal success. I hope that this choir will complete the picture with a recording of some of the lesser-known compositions.
 
Johan van Veen
http://www.musica-dei-donum.org
https://twitter.com/johanvanveen
 



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