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Songs of Deliverance

Austin Friars School, Carlisle
21 July 2018

The acoustically vibrant chapel at Austin Friars School was the perfect setting for a Renaissance musical masterclass on a dark November evening. And who better to deliver this masterclass than The Wordsworth Singers, a choir of significant prestige who have rightly garnered praise and an eager following throughout Cumbria and the North of England? ‘Songs of Deliverance’ explored settings of the Psalms in Latin and German, by two of the foremost Renaissance composers, Schütz and Lassus. All but one of Schütz’s motets here were set for two choirs competing and complementing from balconies on opposing sides of a cathedral. The intimate setting within this chapel precluded this logistical feat, and although there was an element of separation allowing the audience the sense of this, the overall effect was nonetheless stunning. These were dense textures where up to eight parts could be competing for your attention, but the balance was perfect, and never overwhelming. Cellist Lowri Preston’s sensitively played continuo added just the right amount of warmth without upsetting the balance. The acoustics no doubt played their part but had to be managed too, and the balance between lines, dynamic range, tuning and above all the sense of enjoyment from each member of the choir was second to none. Just as the quality of sound was glorious, so too was the use of space between sections and movements that allowed the sound to play out without breaking the spell. At times percussive and declamatory, this was also a sensual dark chocolate melt-in-the-mouth performance! The two Lassus works were no less complex in texture but the clarity of tone blended with the energy and placement in the delivery allowed the words to shine through. This was a brave programme of rich textures that the Wordsworth Singers delivered with full commitment, and praise must be due to their Director, Mark Hindley who not only devised the programme but coaxed and cajoled them from behind the organ continuo, giving them the space and time to really enjoy and express this fabulous music. This was no more evident than in the final piece, ‘Selig Sind die Toten’  (Blessed are the Dead) by Schütz with its modern harmonic shifts and dissonant suspensions that almost hung in the air, a beautiful and moving conclusion to another first class concert by The Wordsworth Singers.

‘Songs of Deliverance’ was performed at Austin Friars School Chapel on Saturday 17th November 2018, and repeated at Our Lady, Star of the Sea & St Michael’s Church, Workington the following day.

Jerry King

Tree Spirits

United Reformed Church, Cockermouth
21 July 2018

Under the inspired leadership of their director, Mark Hindley, the Cumbrian based The Wordsworth Singers have gained a deserved reputation for innovative and creative programming. Their concert last Saturday (21st July) in the United Reformed Church in Cockermouth entitled "Tree Spirits" was no exception. I am sure that to the audience much of the music was unknown, as it was to me. Though we may be well acquainted with the music of Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams that of the other two composers in the programme, John Bevan Baker and Luke Byrne is unknown to most of us. However, if the works performed on Saturday are an example, I would like to hear more of their compositions.

I have heard The Wordsworth Singers over many years and, in my view, Mark Hindley has taken the choir to new heights. They sing with precision, clarity of diction, musically shaped phrases, graded dynamics and impeccable tuning. He now has a wonderful body of singers who respond to him as a group and not as a collection of individual voices.

This concert of four major choral works without any instrumental interludes, performed in a small hall, must have been exhausting for the singers. The unaccompanied Six Songs “Im Freien zu singen” by Mendelssohn, written to be performed outside were perhaps, at times, a little overwhelming in this small enclosed space but were brilliantly and musically executed. Bevan Baker’s “Dryads”, evoking his love of trees and woodland had all the hallmarks of mid 20th century English style and the influence of his teacher, Vaughan Williams. “In Windsor Forest” by Vaughan Williams, contains five songs from his 1929 opera “Sir John in Love”. There was considerable musical variety here and it was good to hear the splendid singing of the ladies and men separately as well as a characterful solo by Fiona Weakley. The Australian composer Luke Byrne’s witty settings of four of Grimms’ tales were a musical delight and much enjoyed by both singers and audience. Apart from in the unaccompanied Mendelssohn the singers enjoyed the superb accompaniment of Glasgow based Michael Bawtree.

Cumbria can feel very proud of its association with The Wordsworth Singers, which now ranks amongst the best of the amateur choirs in the country. It was good to see the hall so full that extra chairs had to be brought in and to know that this choir is appreciated in this area.

John Cooper Green

The Keys to the Kingdom

St John's Church, Keswick
5 May 2018

If Peter was given the keys so the Wordsworth Singers were given the gift. The gift to bring to life, in a church building, the music of the angels. Twenty-seven voices came together in this cacophonous age to express beauty, hope, peace and harmony.

Saint John’s Church, Keswick, with its barrel ceiling, is just the right place to share such an experience. The building is uncluttered and beautifully kept. This music, this experience, belongs in a sacred building. Every word was distinct and crisp - and in the responsive psalm there were those perfectly kept, mystical silences.

The Director chose the music, drawing from the abundance of Spain and Italy in the sixteenth century, he found Morales ‘Salve Regina’ and Palestrina’s Mass for Saint Peter - amongst other treasures. It was a flawless presentation by twenty-seven individuals who certainly knew their onions. The Sanctus incorporated the whole of life, the whole human experience, before God.

To supplement this Martin Eastwell gave us two reflective moments on the vihuela and the lute. These were brilliantly conceived and delivered. Totally appropriate.

Cumbrians and Border folk are immensely proud of The Wordsworth Singers. Mark Hindley, Director, has that capacity, through his conducting, to release the very best in the individual, thus creating a corporate experience which is an inspiration and a lesson to us all.

Malcolm Stonestreet

A Steadfast Heart

St Mary's Church, Ambleside
17 March 2018

With the dramatic unseasonable weather on Saturday March 17th it was perhaps not the best evening to be driving to Ambleside to a concert with a minibus of students but it was well worth it.

Saturday’s programme featured three works by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams; the first, his Mass in G minor was written shortly after the First World War when Vaughan Williams served as an ambulance driver. The mass, the first English setting of the traditional Catholic text for almost three centuries clearly pays homage to the Tudor choral tradition but is infused with the distinctive modal tones that we associate with Vaughan Williams referencing his love and influence of British folk music.

The choir performed with sensitivity, led with precision by their musical director Mark Hindley. The positioning of the double choir combined with the acoustics in St Mary’s church enhanced the setting. The diction and dynamics were exemplary.  Special mention must be made of the solo quartet choir.

Ursula Leveaux, bassoonist with the Nash Ensemble and principal bassoonist with the Academy of Ancient Music was the invited soloist.  Ursula performed Six Studies for English Folk Song with such precision and sense of phrasing that the listener was drawn in to an almost magical world. She writes in her programme notes that Vaughan Williams’ instructions are that these settings be "treated with love", and on Saturday this was certainly the case. 

The settings of two psalms, Psalm 91 by Patrick Hawes, and My Heart is Steadfast (Psalm 108) by Adrian Williams, showcased yet more versatility of the choir. Psalm 91 with its divided choir and contrasting solo quartet was emotional and powerful and again mention must be made of the solo quartet who performed with aplomb and whose enthusiasm for the music was evident on the facial expressions. The bassoon joined the choir for My Heart is Steadfast and this unusual combination worked extremely well and provided a sensitive and memorable setting.

The concert finished with a moving rendition of Valiant for Truth, Vaughan Williams again referencing his war experiences, and the choir combined both strength and poignancy. My students were full of praise for the concert and so was I.

Janet McCallum

Austin Friars School, Carlisle
18 March 2018

For a lover of the English choral tradition, there can be little more rewarding than listening to beautiful music, sung by a fine choir in a perfect acoustic. Just such a combination of elements was to be had last Sunday afternoon in the chapel of Austin Friars School Carlisle, when The Wordsworth Singers performed a concert, directed by their conductor and pianist, Mark Hindley, with variety provided by the distinguished bassoonist, Ursula Leveaux.

Of the five pieces performed, three were by Vaughan Williams. His Mass in G minor, written for double choir, is thought by many to be one of the most beautiful and effective of the twentieth century: the motet, Valiant for Truth, is an ethereal and haunting work, and the Six Studies in English Folk Song, for solo bassoon and piano, provided a wonderfully mellow contrast to the voices. In a more contemporary mode, Patrick Hawes' Psalm 91 is an easily  approachable and attractive piece which, nonetheless, presented the singers with some taxing moments. Adrian Williams' 'My Heart is Steadfast' is set for the unusual combination of unaccompanied chorus and bassoon and was an interesting and most effective pairing.

There can be little doubt that Wordsworth Singers is now one of the most accomplished choirs in the north of England. Almost the only defect was very occasional smudging and a little flatness at some entries (I nitpick here); but the ensemble and vocal balance was exemplary with glorious but unforced fortissimos searing dramatically through the church, while pianissimos were poised, as if hanging by a thread, with never a hint of intonation problems. 

Some simply beautiful solo singing completed a picture of an eminently confident and superbly trained choir. A Cumbrian jewel to be proud of.

Anthony Peacock