O Miracle of Love
Austin Friars School, Carlisle
St George's Church, Kendal
19, 20 November 2016
The many loyal followers of the Wordsworth Singers have come to expect programmes full of interest and innovative ideas, and once again they were not disappointed. The audience which left the concert in Austin Friars' School last Saturday had been treated to a delightful evening of interesting and beautiful music.
The title of the concert, 'Miracle of Love', was taken from the words of one of the items in the second half of the programme, a set of songs in the style of madrigals by the modern American composer Morten Lauridsen. They followed a setting of the mass, Missa 'In illo tempore' by one of the greatest madrigal composers of all time, Monteverdi. The musical themes of the mass were drawn from a motet In illo tempore loquente Jesu by an earlier composer, Nicolas Gombert. Both of these composers set their texts expertly and with great beauty, with Monteverdi in particular proving a feast of varying textures and some quite startling key changes to reflect the changing themes of the mass.
The madrigal-like Fire Songs by Lauridsen were extremely exciting to listen to. He is a master of the use of dissonance and discord without ever descending into harshness. His settings of these Italian Renaissance poems aptly reflected their theme, which portrayed the writers as being overwhelmed by passion which seemed to bring them much more pain than pleasure. The fire of love did not light them up with joy but burnt them in agony and left them ultimately in despair. Possibly we should look back at the words of the brief opening motet and conclude that only reliance on the word of God brings true blessing and lasting happiness.
Between the songs we were treated to some Renaissance music for lute, played by Eric Thomas. The pieces, some familiar and some much less so, were written as if meant to be sung and so felt integral to the programme, while providing a gentle contrast with the firiness of Lauridsen's songs.
The only small disappointment was that the Wordsworth Singers had suffered some last minute illnesses which had reduced their numbers, causing an occasional imbalance between the parts. They dealt expertly with this problem and it could not detract from the overall enjoyment gained from such an intelligently constructed and performed programme.
The Wordsworth Singers’ concert entitled O Miracle of Love was pure delight. From a chilly November evening outside, the audience was transported into the warmth and light of St George’s Church in Kendal, as darkness fell.
The slightly depleted choir was nonetheless still well balanced and their positioning around the chancel step meant that their excellent vocal sound was clearly projected into the generous acoustic of the nave.
The interesting and well balanced programme opened with the motet In illo tempore loquente Jesu by Nicolas Gombert, dating from 1539. From the beginning, the choir sang the beautifully woven polyphonic lines clearly and with suitably sympathetic treatment of the words taken from St Luke’s Gospel.
The second work, the Mass setting In illo tempore by Claudio Monteverdi, was much more substantial, the performance time being about four times that of Gombert’s motet. Written about seventy years later, this setting of the Mass uses no less than ten of Gombert’s themes and is presented with a lighter balance of voices (more upper voice parts than lower), giving a different texture to the music. It is full of interesting and sometimes unexpected harmonies and the five sections were appropriately paced to allow both the emotions and words to come across clearly.
After the interval, the audience were, in complete contrast, treated to the American composer Morten Lauridsen’s Madrigali: Six ‘Fire Songs’, dating from 1987. These compositions combine Italian Renaissance poetry with strikingly modern harmonies, using carefully constructed dissonant chords right from the opening ‘Fire-Chord’. Each of the six settings contained interesting and varied twists and turns of melodies and harmonies, ranging from the light and springy Amor, io sento to the anguished Io piango. The choir coped admirably with the many challenges of these varied pieces.
The madrigals were cleverly divided into three pairs with, by complete contrast, two groups of three pieces played by the distinguished lutenist, Eric Thomas. These works provided gentle interludes of great tranquillity between the fiery madrigals. Three sublime compositions (Tochata and two Fantasias) by Francesco da Milano were in contrapuntal style, somewhat similar in character to the vocal works heard earlier in the concert. The second set, The Frogg Galliard by John Dowland, a Scottish song (Anon) and a Fantasia by Gregorio Huet presented us with a variety of idiomatic lute writing, played with exquisite beauty by the guest soloist.
Overall, we were presented with two hours of sublime music, extremely ably directed by Mark Hindley.