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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