GMCD 7201 – Anthems by Samuel Sebastian Wesley

The Choir of York Minster, Philip Moore – Director, John Scott Whiteley – Organ, Stephen Varcoe – Baritone, Christopher Gulley – Bass, Paul Gameson – Tenor, Russell Whitbourn-Hammond – Alto, Matthew Ferguson & Alastair Hewish – Trebles

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The Organ Vol. 80- No. 316-Summer 2001

Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-76) was the pre-eminent organist/composer of the early Victorian era. His career has been well-chronicled; Hereford, Exeter, Leeds, Winchester and Gloucester – where he worked tirelessly for over 40 years to raise the standard of music offered in English Cathedrals despite the apathy of many of the Cathedral authorities and the low esteem in which organists were held.York was not one of Wesley’s post, although he would have known the Minster during his time as Organist of Leeds Parish Church (1842-49). The present Minster Choir under the direction of Philip Moore have recorded six of Wesley’s anthems with the baritone Stephen Varcoe and John Scott Whiteley (Organ) who provides two organ solos; Introduction and Fugue in C sharp minor and all 57 seconds of the Andante in D.

None of the ‘popular’ Wesley anthems are included here. Rather, this recording is a rummage through the back of the vestry cupboard, blowing the dust away from some rather neglected masterpieces.

Three of the anthems, O God, whose Nature and Property, Trust ye in the Lord and To my Request and Earnest Cry are world premiere recordings. I suspect that they, along with most of the other tracks on this disc will be unfamiliar to readers save for Lead me Lord which concludes Praise the Lord, O My Soul. There are no fewer than eight anthems in the 1933 Church Anthem Book by S S Wesley, including Thou Judge of Quick and Dead (from Let us Lift up our Heart) and Man that is born of a Woman which Wesley composed to precede Purcell’s Thou Knowest Lord. What a pity that the two pieces are not juxtaposed on this recording even if it would have meant allowing Stephen Varcoe is joined by members of the Minster Choir in the verse sections of Let us Lift up our Heart, but it is in Then shall my Grateful Lips, the central section of To My Request and Earnest Cry, that he comes to the fore.

John Scott Whiteley uses the resources of the Walker organ to the full in his accompaniments and the two solo items. A specification of the Minster Organ is included in the excellent booklet (for those who like such details) together with an interesting essay on Wesley by Peter Horton.

I warmly recommend this wonderful CD. The Minster Choir are on top form and the soloists are excellent. A must for the connoisseur of 19th century Anglican church music.

Organists Review May 2001

As the PRIORY team reaches the end of its imaginative Great Cathedral Anthems series it turns to Worcester, that cathedral where over the centuries so much marvellous music has first heard its voice, from Tomkins in the seventeenth century to Elgar in the nineteenth & twentieth, along with composing organists and assistants Blair, Atkins, Day, Guest, Willcocks, Robinson, Trepte, Hunt and Lucas. What an imaginative idea it was to invite Sir David Willcocks (Organist at Worcester 1950-57) to conduct this programme, and to hear Adrian Lucas playing his own cathedral organ, now with its dramatic south transept Solo and Pedal stops restored to working order by Nicholsons and heard to splendid effect Here.

Whilst it is customary in some circles to decry the compositional output of cathedral musicians as second-rate, even a cursory listen to this disc would convince most unbiased listeners that there is fine music a-plenty to be heard at Worcester, some of it by figures hardly known in the wider world. In fact this programme is a particularly satisfying blend of familiar and unfamiliar, lean and rich, reflective and impassioned, linear and massive. Each rarity turns out to be a delight, and each familiar work a welcome revisiting. Just consider how the liturgy at Worcester must have been enhanced over the centuries by anthems such as these.

Much the same can be said of the York Wesley programme, which centres on three blockbusters – Let us lift up our heart (17mins), Praise the Lord, O my soul (12 mins) and To my request and earnest cry (16 mins). The last of these is receiving its first recording, and the first has been recorded or broadcast extremely rarely. Wesley was another jobbing cathedral musician, but he was also a man with a purpose: the reforming of cathedral music and its standards, at the same time as Maria Hackett was approaching cathedral choir schools with similar reforming zeal. Peter Horton’s excellent essay on Wesley’s career should be required reading of all interested in nineteenth century music-making in cathedrals; indeed this recording has been made to complement Mr Horton’s study of S S Wesley’s life, soon to be published by OUP. The York selection of Wesley’s anthems (composed over a forty-year period) is particularly interesting, being a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar, and demonstrating clearly to what creative effect Wesley put mainstream influences from Bach to Spohr. The large-scale works contain much of beauty, much of dramatic power, and not least that uniquely Weslian device of a rising sequence of suspensions.

The York choir has the size, the power – and the bluster – to respond to these large-scale works with unfettered enthusiasm, spaciously recorded in the glorious York acoustic. It is not perhaps too unkind to say that the creamy tones of guest baritone Stephen Varcoe show up an occasional coarseness amongst the lay clerks. Despite a lack of really distinguished voices in the Worcester choir at present, they too demonstrate an unfaltering enthusiasm for the task in hand, and are firmly directed by Sir David to great purpose. Particular joys for me are their performances of the least familiar repertoire: the colourful anthems by Atkins, Day, Guest, Lucas and Willcocks, for which alone the CD is worth buying.
Walter Reeves

Classical Music on the Web April 2001

Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-76) is one of the most intriguing figures in nineteenth century English music. At an early age he made his mark in London, as both organist and composer, but forsook the capital to become organist at Hereford Cathedral in 1832. He seems to have been of a disputatious temperament, and quarrels with deans and chapters arising from his outspoken comments on the need for the reform of church music were to be a constant feature of his career. He must hold some sort of record for the number of major organ posts he occupied: Hereford was to be followed by Exeter (1835), Leeds Parish Church (1841), Winchester (1849) and finally Gloucester (1865).

As an organist he was particularly renowned for his improvisations. As a composer, his early promise was never quite fulfilled: his output was relatively small and rarely ventured beyond the fields of church and organ music. Yet on the evidence of this disc he stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries. Unfortunately he was easily discouraged – in the 1850s he gave up composing altogether – which is not surprising given that his music seemingly did not find favour with the church authorities (the magnificent anthem To My Request and Earnest Cry, here recorded for the first time, was written while he was at Exeter: but it was probably never performed in his lifetime).

He possessed an easy mastery of chromatic harmony, boldly deploying a notable degree of dissonance. Another quality he displayed was a wonderful ability to match music to the meaning of particular texts. Take Trust Ye in the Lord (another anthem receiving its first recording): the words ‘ … the labour of the olive shall fail and the fields shall give no wheat’ are clothed in music of gentle pathos; but the following ‘Yet will I rejoice in the Lord’ is notable for the soaring, exultant treble line to which they are entrusted.

The whole disc abounds with similar felicities – the exquisite dissonances in the concise, moving Man that is Born of a Woman, written for the Burial Sentences, the affecting simplicity of Lead Me Lord, the tremendous fugue leading to the climax of To My Request and Earnest Cry, followed by a coda of moving serenity. And the organ Introduction & Fugue in C# minor is a splendidly structured affair.

I cannot recommend this disc too highly. The acoustic of York Minster is a perfect setting for the music, and the choir is thoroughly on top of its work: it fields splendid soloists, trebles Alastair Hewish and Matthew Ferguson are particularly outstanding). Telling contributions come from Stephen Varcoe (baritone) and John Scott Whiteley (organ); and Philip Moore is the authoritative conductor. Peter Horton’s sleeve notes are a model of their kind.
Adrian Smith

American Record Guide January / February 2001

This is certainly not a selection of Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s best-known anthems. In 1853 he published his collection of Twelve Anthems, the works he considered his best to that date. Of the anthems here, only two come from that collection: the massive and dramatic ‘Let Us Lift Up Our Heart’ and the concise funeral anthem ‘Man That Is Born of Woman’. ‘Praise the Lord, 0 My Soul’ (1861) is generally regarded as the finest of Wesley’s later anthems.

Four of the pieces on this program-three of the anthems and one of the organ pieces- are recorded here for the first time. ‘0 God, Whose Nature and Property’ is a short and early work dating from 1831, and the Andante in D for organ is no more than an insignificant miniature. The other two premiere recordings are substantial. ‘Trust Ye in the Lord’, dating from around 1835, has an opening chorus somewhat reminiscent of 18th-Century triple- meter psalm tunes, and it returns at the end of the work. In between there is a solo verse for treble marked by Spohrish chromaticism that sounds a bit corny to modern ears. This solo is followed by a somewhat over-extended treble unison chorus. Since Wesley did not include this in his Twelve Anthems, it seems a reason- able conjecture that he did not consider it one of his best. I think he was right. ‘To My Request and Earnest Cry’ is an even more substantial work, comparable in scope with ‘Let Us Lift Up Our Heart’ and written around the same time (c 1836), The text is unusual for Wesley-a metrical paraphrase of the last eight verses of Psalm 119-but as he often does, he treats the text freely, altering the order of the verses. The lengthy final chorus is as fine as anything Wesley ever wrote, but for some reason he seems to have lost interest in the piece, never performed it, and omitted it from his 1853 publication.

Philip Moore and the York Minster Choir give persuasive performances of all these pieces, It is instructive to compare this with the pair of discs from Donald Hunt and the Worcester Cathedral Choir (Hyperion 66446 & 66469; Mar/Apr 1992) containing all of the Twelve Anthems plus ‘Praise the Lord, 0 M Soul’. Hunt’s performances are admirable in many ways, but I faulted him at the time for fast tempos and inflexible phrasing. Too often the music felt pushed and unable to breathe. One notable exception was the extended baritone solo, “Thou, 0 Lord God”, that forms the centrepiece of the anthem ‘Let Us Lift Up Our Heart’. Here Hunt took such a slow tempo that the music lacked urgency and propulsion. Moore’s greater sensitivity to the pacing of the musie makes his interpretation preferable. Baritone Stephen Varcoe is perhaps the best possible soloist for “Thou, 0 Lord God” as well as the solo in ‘To My Request and Earnest Cry’.

My first impression of Guild’s sonics was very unfavourable. The sound seemed rather distant, thin, and unblended, the organ in particular lacking presence in the solo Introduction and Fugue in C-sharp minor. On a second hearing, the recording quality seemed not so bad-the ear does manage to adjust pretty quickly to such things-but still not as good as the clear and rich tone captured by Hyperion at Worcester. The tone of the York choir comes across as less smoothly blended and balanced than the Worcester choir, but where the repertory overlaps, I still prefer Moore’s vivid and persuasive interpretations.

The two recordings, of course, serve different purposes. Hyperion systematically gathers together Wesley’s best efforts as an anthem composer. The Guild disc passes over the most familiar pieces in favour of Wesley rarities and will appeal more to the connoisseur. It is, I think, a must for the serious student of the composer and bis period. Texts are reproduced in full in the booklet, but text sources are not given. Wesley often assembled texts from several different passages of scripture in a single anthem and sometimes included non- scriptural words. The three metrical stanzas that conclude ‘Let Us Lift Up Our Heart’, for instance, were written by the composer’s grandfather, the Rev. Charles Wesley.