Yorkshire Times
Weekend Edition
Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
12:00 AM 8th June 2024

Classical Music: Samuel Sebastian Wesley Sacred Choral Music

Samuel Sebastian Wesley: Sacred Choral Music

Blessed be the God and Father; O give thanks unto the Lord; O thou who camest from above (Hereford); Let us lift up our heart; Wash me throughly; The Wilderness; Psalm 142, Credo (Communion Service in E; O God whose nature and property; All people that on earth do dwell (The Hundredth Psalm).

Choir of the National Musicians’ Church
Director: Toby Ward. Organist: Richard Gowers

Delphian DCD34268

Recorded at St James Bermondsey, London.

It’s rare to get albums these days featuring English choral music from the Victorian era. I miss cathedral choirs singing the dramatic choral anthems from composers such as SS Wesley at Evensong. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a balance in music programming, which says a lot about the times we live in.

Wesley served as the organist at the cathedrals of Hereford, Exeter, Winchester, and Gloucester, in addition to Leeds Parish Church. He composed anthems for his choirs, including O God, whose nature and property for the Exeter choir that was held in great esteem.

This disc offers plenty to savour and enjoy, but it's disappointing to see the verse anthem Ascribe unto the Lord, omitted. I consider it to be far better than The Wilderness. Although there are still firm favourites such as Blessed be the God and Father, using the tune Hereford to accompany O thou who camest from above, and Wash me thoroughly, an anthem I know well as it was always on the list for my choristers to prepare for their much coveted Bishop Chorister Awards.

Overall, the back line of tenors and basses contributes beautifully, creating a lovely ensemble. However, a strident soprano line often dominates, not only in solo lines but also in ensemble settings. It is worth remembering that church attendance in England was flourishing during Wesley's life—something not wasted on him, as he was able to push the boundaries of English church music in a new direction, encompassing a more ambitious, even operatic style, as the soprano line here demonstrates, with a vibrato Wesley may not have recognised in church services. 

As Peter Horton points out in his excellent notes, the anthem O God, whose nature and property included both traditional and novel harmonies, proved to be a sign of things to come in Wesley's subsequent compositions. Throughout, Toby Ward’s choir responds well to his direction, with some emphasis on words and lovely, controlled singing.

Richard Gowers
Richard Gowers Photo:
The organ accompaniment is well-judged, providing the perfect cushion for the voices to sit on. Richard Gowers uses the instrument's colour well in his registrations, such as in ‘Who for us men’ from the Credo (Communion Service in E). This recording is the first to have been made using an organ similar in design to the instrument used by Wesley’s in Hereford Cathedral in the 1830s. Psalm 142 features a delightful accompaniment, with the words sung descriptively in the tradition of Anglican chant.

The substantial work is The Wilderness, composed during Wesley’s first year at Hereford Cathedral. Richard Gowers' accompaniment once again demonstrates what Wesley was doing with a lovely, registered, elaborate organ part that makes use of the pedal section. We can hear Wesley's harmonic direction, and Ward's choir effectively captures the dramatic elements of the text, particularly the fugal parts.

Despite the omission of Ascribe unto the Lord, this disc is a good introduction to SS Wesley.