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Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810-1876)
O give thanks unto the Lord [8:16]
Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace [3:46]
Blessed be the God and Father [7:51]
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis in E major [11:27]
The Wilderness [13:27]
Wash me thoroughly [4:22]
Praise the Lord, O my Soul [10:50]
The Choir of St Peter’s College, Oxford/Roger Allen
Mary Ann Wootton and Daniel Pugh-Bevan (organ)
rec. St Peter’s College Chapel, 23-25 June 2014
sung texts included
OXRECS OXCD-129 [59:59]

Despite the great changes he inspired in Anglican Cathedral music in the nineteenth century I suspect that the music of Samuel Sebastian Wesley is heard less often today in such services than was the case half a century; certainly less than a whole century ago. In addition, although Cathedral choirs may include his music in recitals few other choirs do so. I hope I am wrong in this but I have a distinct impression of a composer nowadays unfairly neglected in live performance. Fortunately there are already a number of admirable discs devoted to his music and many more that include one or more items in a mixed programme. The present disc adds to the former and, despite a programme which contains nothing new to the catalogue, has real merits of its own.

Wesley was organist at the cathedrals of Hereford, Exeter, Winchester and Gloucester as well as Leeds Parish Church - as it then was - but, as far as I am aware, never occupied a position at an Oxbridge college. St Peter’s College was founded only in 1928 and became a full College of the University in 1961. Its choir is mixed voice and thirty-two singers are named in the booklet. Certainly it produces a firm sound appropriate to the works on this disc and there is no hint of apology for Wesley’s bigger climaxes or for the dramatic nature of many of these anthems. The organ too, originally dating from 1875 by “Father” Willis but much altered since then, has the kind of sound I imagine the composer would have expected. These are generally powerful performances which make the most of the contrasts between the forceful and lyrical sections of the music. For the most part the listener is unlikely to notice that this is not an all-male choir, the female soloists usually producing a sound very much like that of a choirboy. The only serious exception is in the central section of “O give thanks” where Lucy Cox produces a very obviously female sound which for me suits the music very well but which may disconcert other listeners. The male soloists are accurate and phrase well but lack the sheer power which more mature lay-clerks usually manage to produce in these works. Only in this respect might these performances be compared unfavourably with those from male voice Cathedral choirs.

Despite these minor comments, this is overall a very enjoyable disc, sung and played with real commitment to the style of the music. It is a pity that “Ascribe unto the Lord” was not included, as this is a piece which any admirer of Wesley’s music will want to have on disc, but as it has been recorded elsewhere many time it is perhaps better to focus on the substantial merits of what is included here. OxRecs have enhanced those merits by providing both the texts and interesting notes on the music, as well as an admirably clear and well-focused recording. This is a disc to gladden the hearts of all enthusiasts for the music of this composer.
 
John Sheppard