16 November 2019
It is not hard, moving amongst the stone columns of a mediaeval English cathedral, to reimagine ancient plainchant sung so regularly in their midst over the preceding eight centuries. So the audience, gathered on Saturday in Carlisle’s lovely decorated gothic choir chancel, leading through to the Norman nave, were in a good place for what followed.
By losing most of their choral tradition after Napoleon, French church musicians had an unwelcome opportunity to reimagine their mediaeval musical past and portray it in their own musical language. Francois Poulenc’s “Litany to the Black Virgin” is a fervent reach back into the mystical past by an irreverent and witty twentieth century man, given pause by the numinous experience of visiting an ancient pilgrim church in a deep river gorge in Southern France. The women’s voices of The Wordsworth Singers gave Poulenc’s eccentric melodies a firm line, with admirable breath control and consistency of tone.
The men replied with two delicious but rarely heard pieces for men’s voices, the Ave Maria by Franz Biebl, and Nigra Sum by Pablo Casals. Each placed considerable demands of range and tone, obliging the twelve men present to resemble a full male voice choir. Assisted by the surprisingly comfortable acoustics of the cathedral, the men presented a charming blend, though they did not perhaps always manage to follow their conductor into the full sweeping emotional engagement to which he very capably invited them.
The piece all had come to hear was Maurice Durufle’s Requiem. Founded on that mediaeval Gregorian chant, the work is given an individual magic with an exquisite interlacing of the most luxurious organ accompaniment. Here another of the cathedral’s assets, its magnificent beast of an organ, came into full focus. In fact, the audience sat facing into the choir with their backs to the East End, so as to behold the full force of the organ’s magnificent range of sounds.
The choir is well suited to this piece, which requires an essentially prayerful tone, the softs many, the louds warm and fervent, rather than angry or aggressive. The occasional exceptions to this, where the composer urges the choir to ‘let rip’, imploring the King of Glory to deliver us from the lion’s mouth so that Hell does not swallow us up, or imitating the heavenly hosts crying Hosanna in the highest were perhaps a little underpowered. But the complexity of the piece is in the constant variations of dynamics and pace, and the choir’s conductor Mark Hindley maintained a masterful grasp of the line and sweep. Here was a performance of dramatic integrity.
A highlight in the centre of the Requiem is the little movement, “Pie Jesu” (Gracious Jesus, grant them eternal rest), given in Durufle’s score (as in Faure’s) to a soprano soloist. It is a high wire act, taking the singer both from the very depths of her range to the top and also from the tiniest pianissimo to the fullest forte. Fiona Weakley delivered all this, filling the entire cathedral with emotionally charged singing of high quality.
The first and last notes of the evening were created on the cathedral’s organ by the renowned Irish organist Fergal Caulfield. His virtuosity and imaginative selection of registrations showed off Carlisle’s great instrument to its full, particularly in a thrillingly fast and furious rendition of Olivier Messiaen’s toccata, ‘Transports de joie’. Equally remarkable though were the sheer range of timbres and voices he found, not only to punctuate the ebb and flow of the Requiem, but also in a highly enjoyable Spanish ‘tiento’ or fantasia by Francisco Correa de Arauxo. For that short moment the audience was transported to seventeenth century Seville, before an a capella return to England with Benjamin Britten’s motet for choir and solo quartet Hymn To The Virgin. This apparently simple piece will often defeat amateur choirs, unaware of the unforgiving way bad tuning, ensemble or pacing will immediately show. The Wordsworth Singers, under Mark Hindley’s magisterial guidance, demonstrated that they are a choir of high standards by turning in a polished performance that left the audience momentarily silent, following the dying of the final quiet notes into the far corners of the cathedral.
Paul im Thurn