Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810-1876)
Ascribe Unto The Lord [14 :50]
Blessed be the God and Father [7:40]
Choral Song [6 :39]*
Thou wilt keep Him in perfect peace [4:01]
Wash me thoroughly from my wickedness [4:30]
Andante in E minor [4:00]*
Cast me not away [5:02]
Larghetto [5:07]*
The Wilderness [15:01]
The Choir of New College, Oxford/Edward Higginbottom (solo organ*)
Martin Hallows (organ scholar)
rec. Chapel of New College Oxford, 6-7 April 1989 and 7 August 1990
CRD 3463 [66:50]

Here’s a question to get you thinking. Which is the most memorable dominant 7th chord in all music?

For aficionados of English cathedral music there is only one possible answer; the one in Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s anthem Blessed Be the God and Father which forms the bridge between the recitative “Being born again” and the final chorus “But the word of the Lord” - 06:05 on this recording, and the very last chord on page 5 for those following the score. It has the power to raise the hairs on the back of the necks and send tingles down the spines of even the most seasoned choristers, and can still shock the uninitiated into wakefulness after the torpor of what has gone before. I have known grown men (train spotters by day) who travel the length and breadth of Britain in search of this one chord in all its glory.

Along with the “Alleluyas” from Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and “Sicut pastor” from Naylor’s Vox dicentis: clama it is one of those musical moments I simply could not live without. As a very young organist I well recall the first time I had to play it in public – an Evensong in Guildford Cathedral in the late 1960s – and I got it wrong. To my eternal shame a very loud B flat chord emerged with a hideous added sixth!

On record it loses none of its impact, and Martin Hallows certainly gives it a good punch here while Edward Higginbottom allows it all the space it needs to create its remarkable impression. Unfortunately, Higginbottom’s tempi are so sluggish, especially in the final chorus, that far from having its liberating effect over the closing bars of this mighty anthem, this great organ chord seems an irrelevance, standing monumentally in the path of a snail’s rather colourless progress through the eight pages of this mainstay of the English cathedral repertory.

Alongside Andrew Nethsingha’s similarly-programmed survey of Wesley with the St John’s College Cambridge Choir (CHAN10751), this New College Oxford recording pales into insignificance. Few of Wesley’s specific details for organ registration are observed – where, for example, are those classic moments of right hand flute against left hand reed? - and dynamics from the choir are two-dimensional, moving from loud to soft with the minimum of middle ground. However, over 20 years separate these two recordings, and while in some areas that might not seem an age, when it comes to attitudes towards 19th century English church music, there have been radical changes in the years between 1991, when this New College recording was first issued, and 2013 when Chandos released their St John’s College disc.

As Nethsingha shows, we now take Wesley and his contemporaries much more seriously, recognising in the cathedral music of the 19th century indicators of an age in which colour, extravagant gesture and noble melodic and harmonic ideas were a reflection of the power and self-confidence of the Anglican church. Not for Wesley and his generation the apologetic watered-down hints of popular music in self-styled “Praise Songs” (where “Praise” is a synonym for innocuous and “Songs” a word with no apparent musical linkage), and while in the 1980s there was still the belief that the Golden Age of English church music had drawn to a close with the dawn of the 18th century, serious musicians were beginning to recognise that Wesley had something worthwhile and original to say for all the faults of his age. (Faults which Wesley himself highlighted in his famous diatribe against the state of English cathedral music, and which are evidenced in a footnote in the score to Blessed Be the God and Father which wryly observes that, on Easter Day when the anthem was first performed in Hereford Cathedral, “only Trebles and a single Bass voice were available”.)

In the light of that, we might regard this CRD re-issue as not so much to be considered as a viable choice for those who want just to hear this music, as an important historical record of a previous performing age. Clarity of diction and precision of pitch are very obvious in all these New College performances, even if interpretative details in the scores are side-stepped. Higginbottom’s choristers sing with a bright sound, maybe lacking warmth or character, but faultless in their articulation and vocal control. The CRD recording is similarly crystal clear and ideally balanced, but lacking in depth or perspective, and is totally devoid of any kind of acoustic atmosphere.
These qualities pay dividends in a calm but unsentimental account of Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace, although once again Higginbottom’s extremely slow tempo stretches one’s tolerance levels. They also underline the fascinating parallel between the verse anthems of Purcell and The Wilderness, where heavy 19th century romanticism can so often obscure such historical antecedents.

On top of that there are some beautifully modulated solo voices; Oliver Johnston has remarkable poise in the tortuous opening line of Wash me thoroughly. Toby Spence, a member of the 1989/1990 New College choir who has since gone on to achieve some notable fame outside the world of English cathedral music, makes his presence felt in a moment of great vitality during The Wilderness where his “lame man” leaping brilliantly conveys Wesley’s word-painting.

I remain unconvinced that the iconic 1969 Grant, Degens and Bradbeer organ of New College is in any way suitable for the performance of 19th century English repertory. Higginbottom certainly plays the solo pieces on this disc as he conducts the choral ones - with impressive precision and lightness of touch – but with every single note (included one or two rather self-conscious ornamental flourishes) projected with clinical clarity, it all lacks a sense of musical coherence. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Fugue of the Choral Song where, reverting to Wesley’s original manuals-only version, we are made painfully aware that, when it came to contrapuntal writing, Wesley was by no means a flawless master.

To enjoy this music in robust, wonderfully communicative performances, go to Nethsingha and the St John’s College choristers on Chandos, but as a significant historical record of an earlier approach to Wesley’s music, this CRD reissue, with some good booklet notes by Peter Horton and precise mapping out of texts and solo voices, is worth having.

Marc Rochester
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