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Samuel WESLEY (1766-1837)
Confitebor tibi, Domine - Psalm 111 for SATB voices, chorus and orchestra (1799) [58:59]
Claire Seaton (soprano); Susanne Holmes (mezzo-soprano); Nicholas Sharratt (tenor); Jonathan Brown (baritone)
Portsmouth Choral Union
Southern Pro Musica/David Gostick
rec. Elder Concert Hall, Bryanston School, UK, 2017

Samuel Wesley, the son of the hymn-smith Charles Wesley and the nephew of John Wesley, the two founders of Methodism, was a very considerable musical talent. He was an exceptional keyboard player and violinist as well as being a far from insignificant composer. This setting of Confitebor Tibi, Domine (I will give thanks unto the Lord) was written in the summer of 1799. It was premiered on 4 May 1826 at London's Argyll Rooms on Regent Street. While comparisons with Handel and Haydn can be found it is Mozart who seems to be a continuous presence throughout this ambitious hour-long work. Samuel Wesley has been called the "English Mozart" and I see that he was born ten years after Mozart but, gifted with a longer life, died 46 years later.

The ever repertoire-questing David Gostick has been music director of the Portsmouth Choral Union (PCU) since 2012 and before that had been conductor of the Bournemouth Sinfonietta Choir since 2003. The booklet for this CD is a commodious home for a profile of Confitebor Tibi, Domine by Philip Olleson, for profiles of all the artists and ensembles engaged and for the sung words in the original Latin and in English translation. This is not, in any event, a wordy setting but makes liberal use of melisma and repetition. The recording is in 15 tracks which enables you to follow Wesley's floor-plan for this considerable choral work. According to the well laid-out booklet, the PCU is 221 strong. They sound it, although they sing with splendid weight as well as with fine enunciation and delicacy. They are joined by the Southern Pro Musica, true collaborators in style and accomplishment. The orchestral specification is – – timpani – organ – strings. There is a nicely poised division of musical wealth between the orchestra and the voices massed and solo.

The work’s first latter-day revival came in York Minster on 10 June 1972. Its modern PCU premiere took place on 11 March 2017 with these forces at St. Mary's Fratton. They made this recording two weeks later.

The rapturous quartet of solo voices launches the first movement of Confitebor tibi, Domine preceded by a blessedly easeful orchestral introduction. The spirited choir enters for the Magna opera. Jonathan Brown, a steady and true bass-baritone with a tobacco-dark complexion to his voice, undertakes the Confessio. This is done with delightful giddy singing on a constantly turning melody. Wesley accords him a most impressive melisma. The chorus reappear with soothing woodwind for Memoriam fecit. This comes across as a pastoral idyll but with a sense of purposeful progress. It is rather reminiscent of Beethoven's Pastoral. The honeyed pianissimo singing and floating delight of the choir is memorable.

Nicholas Sharratt's slightly nasal delivery for the slow Memor Erit put me in mind of fellow tenor Gerald English - a good memory of a singer rather underestimated (try his On Wenlock Edge on a Unicorn CD). There are stormy delights in the Virtutem operum. This is coupled with good word-shaping and delivery. One might have feared a choral blur of sound but the words are distinct and audible. Claire Seaton in Ut det illis is impressively stormy. Then follows the Mozartean orchestral zest of the SPM in the ten-minute-long Fidelia omnia, including some beneficently articulated horn phrasing. All this is delivered despite the twists and turns of Wesley's writing. The soprano darts and curvets in what is a true display piece. It is masterfully done and the singer surmounts every challenge in the Mozartean book. She does so musically and this despite the cruel demands of Wesley's Der Hölle Rache-style melisma. In the following Redemptionem, after all that display, the soprano and alto are heard seemingly lost in wonder at the sending of redemption and praise.

Mandavit is in the manner of a round with much repetition and skilled tiering of voices: men-v-women. The Initium movement includes much dainty and dignified woodwind work and a jolly part for the vinegary tenor. The following Intellectus has the baritone in a darker declamatory role. The lento adagio writing has great dignity and again serenade-like writing for the woodwind which in part suggests the parade ground. Then, in the only trio for the soloists, there comes a Laudatio ejus. The solo voices intertwine in music of praise that is intricately fleet of foot. The Gloria patri boasts some spiritual inward singing quite untypical of its words "Glory be to the Father". One might have expected a conflagration of dazzling sound. In fact, its steady progress evokes the slow dripping of honey. Finally, in the Sicut erat happiness glows from the choir as it sings "As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be world without end". Typically, this extensive and astonishing work ends in life-enhancing twists and turns of musical phrasing.

This recording was made possible due to what must have been a generous legacy from Marion Earll who had been a long-standing member of the PCU. I see that the paperback score was published by Musica Britannica Trust via Stainer and Bell in 1978. It was edited by John Marsh (1904-1994) and runs to 236pp. The score is priced at £88.00 although Amazon has it secondhand at considerably less.

Having comes to terms with this well booted and suited piece you might like to strike out in other Samuel Wesley directions. If so, then next explore five of the Wesley symphonies on Chandos under the invigorating guiding hand of Matthias Bamert.

Wesley, unsurprisingly, considered Confitebor his masterpiece and although I am not familiar with his other works I am not at all surprised; such is its quality.

Rob Barnett


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