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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

Night Flight

Lanercost Priory, nr Brampton
1 July 2017

The Wordsworths are on a roll, gathering momentum with each concert and growing as an ensemble, finding greater homogeneity of sound and developing at the same time a unique voice. The energy which went into the learning of Bach’s B Minor Mass recently has preserved itself in the communication of the reflective, intimate settings which made up the characteristically wide-ranging programme of this latest concert, framing three modern composers with works by established early modern writers.

The act of setting words to music has been such a constant of our culture that we seldom if ever question the wisdom of doing it: yet perhaps there is some poetry so good, so musically expressive in its own right, that to add music is superfluous and otiose (there is some mileage in Paul Valéry’s assertion: “Hearing verse set to music is like looking at a painting through a stained-glass window”). It is with this in mind that one could question the young Holst’s choice of lyrics in his Five Part Songs (op 12) with which the Wordsworths started the concert. Musically seductive and with evident promise, it was paradoxically the choir’s expertise at word painting and clarity of diction which pointed up, to this listener at least, the occasional disconnect between music and lyric, notably in the Christina Rossetti setting in which the rhythm and morbid fascinations of the text were subjugated to beauty of musical line – a fine disconnect perhaps, but a real one.

No such uncertainty in the next work, Tavener’s Love bade me welcome, in which the choir demonstrated their now accustomed sensitivity to mood and nuance by sitting back and letting the work take control, simply transmitting Herbert’s text without superfluity of expression by means of Tavener’s assured setting.

The third work in the programme was played by guest cellist Martin Johnson, much applauded soloist and principal cello of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin, accompanied deftly by Mark Hindley. Holst’s Invocation is a glorious shimmering maze of late-romantic, early modern English impressionism (to conflate at least three genres) and it was moving and illuminating to hear it in this context, the almost visible filigree of the music soaring up and around the arches of the priory.

The choir joined Martin Johnson for the final work in the first half, Tavener’s simply stunning and deservedly popular Svyati, a setting for cello and chorus of a short Slavonic text from the eastern Orthodox liturgy. This piece is far more than a composer’s hanging music on a convenient lyrical hook, but a sublime commentary and conversation between equals arrived at through dedication and meditation.

Simple, direct and compelling, this required great control from the choir, technically (basses for example on a bottom “E” for nearly the entire work), emotionally and intellectually. Mark Hindley directed with his usual assurance, never letting the music out of his grasp, yet always granting the freedom of expression vital and integral to this piece.

Straight after the interval we heard Cecilia McDowall’s Night Flight, three settings for cello and chorus of poems by Sheila Bryer, and written to mark the centenary of the first woman to fly across the English Channel. This was by turns ravishing and witty, with an inspired new approach to word painting in the description of a crow landing on a windy day. The sudden key change at the end of the third setting illuminated rather than obscured the “vast medieval heaven” of the text, and the piece received a deservedly enthusiastic welcome from the large audience.

This was followed by Delius’s short, complex Midsummer Song, based on an anonymous verse (probably by the composer) imagining play and laughter in the woods on midsummer day. The choir seemed to enjoy it too.

Martin and Mark then played a far more serious piece, Delius’s Romance for cello and piano, which despite its somewhat lightweight appellation takes the form of a distinctly brooding and passionate emotional journey, moving from darkness to ecstasy, vividly portrayed by the two players.

The final item consisted of Five English Folksongs in the arrangements by the genre-crossing composer Daryl Runswick. These are not settings in the sense of those by Holst, say, or Vaughan Williams, but rather commentaries on the texts, their purpose being to tell the story, illuminate and entertain – which they did to great effect, the choir maintaining the same energy and purpose as at the start. Deservedly long and enthusiastic applause saluted the performers in a thoroughly rewarding evening, before Martin Johnson concluded for us with a simple, delicately moving piece by, in his words: “My teacher’s teacher”, Pablo Casals. Perfect.

NICK BUTTERS