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Michael WISE (c1648 - 1687): "Sacred Choral Music"

The Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge; David Ballantyne, Thomas Hewitt Jones, Geoffrey Webber, organ
Dir: Geoffrey Webber

rec: June 30 - July 2, 2007, Cambridge, Pembroke College (chapel)
Delphian - DCD34041 ( 2008) (70'15")

anon: [Double Voluntary] in d minor; [Verse] in D; Christopher GIBBONS (1615-1676): A Verse for the Organ; Verse for Single Organ; Verse in a minor; Matthew LOCKE (1622-1677): [Verse] for the Organ; Michael WISE: Awake, put on thy strength o Sion; Blessed is he that considereth the poor and needy; Have pity upon me, O ye my friends; How are the mighty fallen; O praise the Lord in his holiness; Open me the gates of righteousness; Prepare ye the way of the Lord; Service in d minor; Service in E flat; The Lord is my shepherd; The ways of Zion do mourn

Geoffrey Webber seems to have a special interest in neglected sacred music from 17th century England. This disc is the third with such music, after recordings of sacred works by William Child (1606 - 1697) and William Turner (1651 - 1740). With Michael Wise they have in common that they were all active as composers in the Restoration period, following the Commonwealth when church music in English cathedrals was forbidden.

Michael Wise was directly connected to the Restoration as he was one of the trebles in the Chapel Royal which was restored when the Commonwealth came to an end in 1660. He left the chapel as his voice broke, in 1663, and from 1665 to 1668 he was lay clerk of St George's Chapel, Windsor, and of Eton College. In 1668 he was appointed organist, lay vicar and instructor of the choristers of Salisbury Cathedral, in the city where he also was born. In 1676 he joined the Chapel Royal again, this time as Gentleman, and in 1687 he was given another important job: master of the choristers of St Paul's Cathedral. But before he could take up that position he died.

His career shows that his abilities were never in doubt. Also the dissemination of his compositions testify that he was held in high esteem. This is in strong contrast to his reputation as a human being. It seems he was a difficult character, who caused trouble almost everywhere he worked. He was accused of neglecting his duties, of drunkenness and other things considered inappropriate. "Yet Wise's church music betrays nothing of his erratic temperament. Ian Spink has noted how his music 'shows restraint and a sense of decorum'", Geoffrey Webber writes in his programme notes.

The music on this disc supports that view. Wise doesn't use instruments in his anthems: all of them are for voices with support of just the organ. There is certainly some text expression, but Wise doesn't usually set the texts in a declamatory manner. Another difference with composers of his time is that many verses are given to treble voices rather than lower voices (alto, tenor or bass).

Like I wrote there is some text expression in Wise's anthems. A good example is the use of chromaticism on the word "mourn" in the anthem 'The ways of Sion do mourn', which caused the admiration of Charles Burney about a hunderd years after. Another example is the lively declamatory setting of the phrase "we will rejoice" in Open me the gates of righteousness.

It is always interesting to hear music which is hardly known, and that is certainly the case here. This disc demonstrates that Wise's music is unjustly neglected, and one can only hope that more ensembles and choirs will include some of his compositions in their repertoire. It is a shame, though, that the Choir of Gonville and Caius College doesn't serve Wise's music very well.

First of all I have some problems with the density of the sound of the choir which lacks the clarity of, in particular, their all-male counterparts. Much more problematic, though, are the contributions of the soloists in the verses of the anthems and services. They are all members of the choir, and they are certainly very good singers. But I find the constant use of sometimes pretty wide vibrato very annoying. It is out of place in this kind of music, and it also damages the overall sound in passages for two or more solo voices. In The Lord is my shepherd the two sopranos use very little vibrato, and as a result this piece is one of the best of this disc. Apart from the use of vibrato some voices don't blend well anyway, like in The ways of Sion do mourn, where the soft-grained voice of the soprano and the rather harsh and loud voice of the bass just don't match.

It is really disappointing that this programme doesn't come off better, the more so as not only the music by Wise deserves to be performed, but also because of the way the programme has been put together. The organ pieces are mostly used as a kind of 'intonation', to prepare the mood and the key of the vocal items which follow them. These pieces are all of splendid quality in itself and are all well played.

It is not just that I happen to prefer a performance by an all-male choir, for historical and artistic reasons, I also believe some of these college or cathedral choirs would do much better in this repertoire, like the choirs of St Paul's Cathedral in London, St John's College in Cambridge or New College in Oxford - to mention just a few. I sincerely hope they will turn their interest to the music of Michael Wise some day, and delight us with really satisfying performances of his anthems and services.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

Relevant links:

Choir of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge


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