ONE has to go back only 45 years — to 10 June 1972 — to find the first modern performance of Samuel Wesley’s Confitebor Tibi, Domine — a work for chorus and orchestra just over an hour long. It occasionally surfaces — notably at the Suffolk Villages Festival in 2004, directed by Peter Holman. Now it has achieved a spellbinding revival from Portsmouth Choral Union at St Mary’s, Portsea.
Wesley (not to be confused with his son, Samuel Sebastian) thought it his best work, and Mr Holman goes one further: composed in 1799 (though not heard till a quarter of a century later), it represents “a worthy companion to Haydn’s Creation, written a year or two earlier”.
It is, indeed, a remarkable synthesis. Wesley was responsible for promoting J. S. Bach’s works in England, and he knew his Handel before his teens (he attempted his first effort, an oratorio, Ruth, aged eight). Haydn is a strong influence, especially in later movements; but so is Mozart. The result is a fascinating coming together of Classical and Baroque which without hesitation deserved to be dubbed a masterpiece.
This is a thrilling and uplifting work, a sectional setting of Psalm 110, and in effect an oratorio: magnificently structured, ingeniously varied in its passages for four soloists, full choir, and orchestra, rich in invention, galvanising in its use of word repetition, and richly coloured. The contrast between verses is remarkable: they veer from the violently urgent to the poignant, evincing equal mastery in both. Wesley wrote no opera, but the work as a whole unleashes a dramatic fervour and evocative splendour.
Here is an oratorio as unfamiliar to chorus and orchestra as to the audience, but on that the performers had mastered so creditably as to endow it with excitement, intensity, and a rich variety. A memorable solo quartet launched the undertaking, heralded by flutes and bassoons, and with a truly Mozartian feel, with sumptuous solo writing — the alto (Susanne Holmes) and tenor (Nicholas Sharratt) solos sounded particularly lucid — and the professional orchestra, the Southern Pro Musica, audibly on form.
Chorus tenors too shone, high up, in the forceful first chorus, “Magna opera Domini”; under their conductor, David Gostick, all voices admirably sustained and built this noble section, which felt as energetic as a vigorous finale.
The setting of “Confessio” (“His work is worthy to be praised”) produced a striding and positive feel, thanks to an eloquently phrased baritone solo work by Jonathan Brown. The next chorus, “Memoriam fecit”, seemed to float along, sopranos and altos gratifyingly tuned, catching and sustaining the mood over expressive cellos and double bass. One of the two shortest movements, “Memor erit”, for tenor solo, proved a gorgeous and uplifting piece of writing. The chorus then embarked on a sizzling scherzo, “Virtutem operum”, stormy and fiery, with the tympanist in full flow.
The capable soprano soloist Claire Seaton delivered a midway marvel: two telling sections, the second of which, “Fidelia omnia” (“All his commandments are true”), prefaced by a burst of horns, proved possibly the work”s showpiece — intense, vivid, and soaring to some superbly placed high notes: Wesley sets his soloist a daunting challenge. The remarkable orchestral envoi — there are several beguiling, Haydnesque instrumental passages — went one further, gaining a surprise appeal akin to a Mozart piano concerto.
More tender is the lovely duet “Redemptionem misit populo suo”, to which the composer appends a chorus that is unexpectedly violent, emphasising the warning “terribile nomen eius”, notably sustained, to which the tenor solo’s “Initium sapientiae”, with exquisite dancing woodwind, adds a moment of great charm.
“Intellectus bonus omnibus”, allocated to the bass, was richly and strongly sung, but it was the ATB trio that followed immediately before the doxology which confirmed, if it were needed, the proximity of Wesley’s writing to his Viennese counterparts.
The conclusion, “Gloria Patri”, was a typical brazen finale, resplendently sung, and notable for some imaginative counterpoint, especially in the upper voices. In Confitebor Tibi, Wesley produced a work worthy of the age, full of ideas, and unrolling one stunning movement after another. A bracing organ duet, and also The Wilderness by Samuel’s famous son, made up the programme.
This was a compelling rediscovery. Confitebor Tibi, Domine is being recorded, and details of the recording can be had from Roger Day on 01329 843876. I am sure that music-lovers won’t be disappointed.