Samuel S. Wesley: Anthems / Robinson, Clare College Choir

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WESLEY Ascribe unto the Lord. O give thanks unto the Lord. Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace. Wash me throughly. O God, whose nature....

WESLEY Ascribe unto the Lord. O give thanks unto the Lord. Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace. Wash me throughly. O God, whose nature. Let us lift up our heart. Blessed be the God and Father. Cast me not away from Thy presence. The Wilderness Christopher Robinson, cond; Clare College Ch, Cambridge; James McVinnie (org) NAXOS 8.570318 (75:14 Text and Translation)

Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810–1876) was the “natural son” of the elder Samuel (also a musician of no small note) and held a variety of musical posts at English cathedrals, including those of Hereford, Winchester, and Gloucester. Of him the Oxford Dictionary of Music observes that he “cherished high ideals in church music in days when the general standard was low and engaged in constant warfare on behalf of his views. Many of his church compositions are in regular use and are highly admired.” No wonder, based on the evidence presented here.

The work of the Clare College Choir was praised, albeit too briefly, by this writer in a compilation of works by the contemporary composer Tarik O’Regan in the September/October 2006 issue of Fanfare ; and one need hardly listen past the first track of the present release, Ascribe unto the Lord, to be thoroughly impressed by both the range of Wesley’s style and the interpretive resources brought to bear thereon by the performers. In the former connection, the piece ranges from an appropriately hushed setting of “Let the whole earth stand in awe of Him” to a highly agitated and (for Wesley) considerably chromatic treatment of “As for the gods of the heathen, they are but idols.” The adjective “scornful” has never before occurred to this writer as a description of a passage of music; but it seems highly apropos here.

As to execution, the work of both full choir and soloists (heavily used in many of these pieces) is a model of perfect intonation, blend, and text declamation. The same virtues remain in consistent evidence throughout the program, notably in the exuberant polyphonic penultimate movement of The Wilderness, which demonstrates how much benefit Wesley derived from his study of J. S. Bach.

The recording acoustic is pleasantly forward and transparent without being microscopic. Special praise is due to organist McVinnie for his supportive but discreet accompaniments, and to the Naxos engineers for the exemplary balance between organ and voices. Excellent program notes by the eminent church-music scholar Nicholas Temperley, than whom no better choice can be imagined for this assignment.

A quick check of a number of alternate performances of Thou wilt keep him, the most popular and most-recorded selection on this program, reveals that those performances are, without exception, included in multi-composer compilations. Ergo, while I can’t swear that the present disc is the only all-Wesley collection on the market, the evidence does suggest that such compilations are at best few and far between. Moreover, two of the selections appear to be only-available recordings: Our God, whose nature and Let us lift up our heart— the latter really a small-scale cantata, at 18 minutes plus. For lovers of 19th-century English church music, this release is not to be missed.

FANFARE: James Carson

Product Description:

  • Release Date: March 27, 2007

  • UPC: 747313031870

  • Catalog Number: 8570318

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Samuel Sebastian Wesley

  • Conductor: Christopher Robinson

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Clare College Choir

  • Performer: James McVinnie