GMCD 7256 – Love Divine – Wesleyan Music from the Choir of Lincoln College Oxford

The Choir of Lincoln College Oxford, Christopher Eastwood – Conductor, Christopher Bucknall – Organ

To the CD in our Shop

The Delius Society – April 2012

This is a very fine CD of all the major works and hymns of S.S. Wesley including Blessed bet he God and Father, Wash me thoroughly, Ascribe unto the Lord, Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, and The Wilderness among others. All are in present day use in this country as are the hymns Ye servants of God, Love divine all loves excelling, Rejoice the Lord in Ring, Lo, He comes with clouds descending and others. The music by others than SS. Wesley, have words by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley who founded the Methodist movement and was closely associated with Lincoln College. The choir’s performances ably supported by the organ are first rate. Strongly recommended to those of various Christian denominations familiar with these staples of the scared repertory.

The Organ No. 325 – September 2003

Honouring one of their most famous predecessors, the Choir of Lincoln College Oxford, under their conductor, Christopher Eastwood begin this recording of Wesleyan music with a wonderfully inspirational and uplifting rendition of Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s anthem – Blessed be the God and Father. Thus the mood is set and continues in similar vein until another fine trio of works by the same composer – Cast me not away; O thou who camest from above and The Wilderness brings the recording to a triumphant close. 

The choral music to be heard on this disc gives testimony to the quality of sound produced by the mixed voices of this superb chapel choir, regarded as one of Oxford University’s finest. They are now building an impressive collection of CDs to enhance their ‘everyday’ role that requires them to sing for the principal College Chapel services.

The choice of hymns includes many firm favourites such as Charles Wesley’s – Love divine, all loves excelling to Rowlands’ wonderful music, Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace with music by the aforementioned Samuel Sebastian Wesley and Charles Wesley’s Rejoice the Lord is King with music by GF Handel.

It would be difficult for any lover of hymns singing not to join in on many occasions – this listener certainly did so. However, the concert effort of remaining quiet in order to listen to the singing of the choir pays dividends and leaves one with the abiding feeling that choral hymn singing is alive and well and in this particular recording is of the highest order.

MusicWeb Wednesday June 04 03

John Wesley studied at Lincoln College, Oxford and it was there, with his brother Charles, that he formed the Holy Club designed to give the like-minded young men a disciplined regime of holy living. It was that regime which led to the name Methodism, at first applied satirically. Singing hymns was always a large part of the Wesley’s itinerant evangelism and their first collection of hymns was published in 1738. 

This disc, recorded by the choir of Lincoln College is designed to celebrate the Wesley’s connection to the College. But the disc is not what it might first appear to be as the choir sing just six hymns by the Wesleys and it is to Samuel Sebastian Wesley that the bulk of the programme belongs.

There is just one hymn by John Wesley (a translation from the German) and five by Charles Wesley. Of these, only one (‘Lo! He comes with clouds descending’) is sung to the tune that was associated with it by the Wesleys. All the others have acquired new tunes subsequently and the choir sing these more familiar versions. Another hymn, (‘Rejoice the Lord is King’) was set by Handel, who was an older contemporary of the Wesleys, but this setting was not published until Samuel Sebastian Wesley (the grandson of Charles) published it in the 19th century.

Besides one of his hymns, setting his grandfather’s words, the choir sing six of Samuel Sebastian’s anthems. Organist of Hereford, Exeter, Winchester and Gloucester Cathedrals and Leeds Parish Church, Samuel Sebastian did much to reform Anglican church music and introduce contemporary harmony and forms into the rather stale and old-fashioned Anglican anthem.

This is an attractive programme and it is useful to have the collection of Samuel Sebastian’s anthems. But his sublimely Anglican anthems rather dilute the Methodist fervour of John’s and Charles’s hymns, a fervour further diluted by using the traditional tunes rather than ones known to John and Charles. A case could be made for a programme devoted to the Wesley family, but then you would surely have to include something by Samuel Sebastian’s father, Samuel Wesley. Samuel Wesley was a child prodigy (writing his first oratorio at the age of eight). Whilst his music might not stand extensive revival, a programme devoted to his father, uncle and son could have fitted in one of his own pieces and it would have made a far stronger selection. What we are left with sounds like typical fare from the college services. This is no bad thing, but the programme had the potential to be something more memorable.

That said, the choir of Lincoln College make a wonderfully clean wholesome sound and sound ideal in this music. A choir with female sopranos and a mixture of female and male altos, the choir has all the virtues (and the odd problem) that come with young voices. The upper parts can make an ethereally pure sound and all voices sing with crispness and liveliness. But the inner parts can lack definition, there are occasional moments of untidiness and the extremes of Samuel Sebastian’s bass parts tax the young baritones in the choir.

The choir fields a fine array of soloists, particularly Silvie Garnsey who contributes a lovely pure, clean treble solo in Samuel Sebastian’s ‘Blessed be God the Father’. Where the soloists act as a semi-chorus, then they sound heavenly. But the soloists are taxed by the more complex, operatically inspired solo passages in Samuel Sebastian’s anthems. In chapel, on a Sunday evening, they undoubtedly make a fine impression, but on record the fine detail and experience is lacking so that these solo passages lack finesse.

They are not always helped by the conductor, Christopher Eastwood (for two tracks he and organist Christopher Bucknall enterprisingly swap roles). He does not have an adequate feel for the structure of Samuel Sebastian’s extensive multi-section structures. Samuel Sebastian started his working life at the English Opera House and brought these influences to bear in his early anthems. Too often, you feel that conductor, choir and soloists, consider each section as a separate entity and any overall structural feeling is lost. This may, however, be a fault of the recording process if the anthems were recorded in sections.

Regarding the hymns, some radical rethinking was called for. The choir sing them musically enough, varying between unison and harmony. They would make an inspiring backing during college services. But listening to these hymns on a CD player, they all sound terribly slow and not a little dreary. Rather than perform them in the standard congregational way, choir, organist and conductor should have remade them anew as small anthems, suitable for armchair listening. In the hymns, the choir’s diction is adequate, but entirely lacks the feeling for the text and the fervour that would surely come from the original performances. Rather than giving us an insight into Charles Wesley’s revolutionary hymnody, these performances resound with comfortable Anglicanism.

Whilst Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s anthems remain popular on anthologies of English choral and cathedral music, collections of his anthems are rarer. Both the New College collection on CRD and Worcester College’s collection on Hyperion seem to have been deleted. So if you are interested in a collection of Samuel Sebastian’s anthems, then consider this collection. But if you are interested in John and Charles Wesley’s hymns, then I suggest that you look elsewhere.
Robert Hugill