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The Peaceable Kingdom

St Mary's Parish Church, Wigton
1 May 2010

In the beautiful setting of St Mary's Parish Church, Wigton, The Wordsworth Singers gave a most distinguished concert of American choral music.

The Singers were evidently at ease with new conductor, Mark Hindley, who also showed his gifts as an organist in two solo items, and as a scholar in the informative programme notes.

The concert took its title from the evening's most substantial item, Randall Thompson's The Peaceable Kingdom, based on paintings by the Pennsylvania quaker, Edward Hicks (1780-1849). These in turn took their inspiration from Isaiah's vision of a perfect world where "the wolf shall lie down with the lamb".

Those familiar with singing the Psalms will know how much scope there is for word-painting. And the articulation of the text is crucial in the present piece, backed up by a feel for the vivid colours of the narrative. The sought-after place is, in fact, a long time coming, preceded by a string of lamentations perhaps more suggestive of Jeremiah than Isaiah.

Randall Thompson's musical idiom is harmonically plain with echoes of the Shakers, the fuging tunes and even the Pilgrim Fathers. So the onus is very much on the choir to make the most of a variety of textures and rhythms. And how well they did this! Vivid contrast informed the opening number, while the second Woe unto them demanded a chant-like articulation where the basses set a very good example.

Howl ye made me think of Belshazzar's Feast. I don’t know quite what is required by this imperative, but the singers were convincing in evoking a Middle-Eastern street scene – nothing English-leafy-suburban about their tone whatsoever!

In contrast, The reeds by the brook was delivered with a sad, cantabile lyricism, the tenors drawing things to a memorable close.

The righteous eventually get their reward in a simple but demanding chordal passage – Ye shall go out with joy. The sonority became quite radiant as all the trees of the field clap their hands – the last-named action conjuring up some delightful musical onomatopoeia. The final gladness of heart was deeply moving.

The concert began with Alleluia, the same composer's best-known work. This is an ambivalent piece, as I learnt from the programme note, commissioned as a fanfare for the much-loved Tanglewood Festival, but affected by the composer's despair at the onset of World War II. It was convincingly done.

The second half of the concert – after an Interval that gave opportunity to admire the stained-glass windows given by Melvyn Bragg – began with Samuel Barber's celebrated Adagio in its Agnus Dei vocal arrangement.

Starting this piece, with its softly purring seventh chord must be very taxing – rather like the dreaded woodwind chords in the Midsummer Night's Dream overture. But the choir got going well at a practical tempo that kept up a flowing four-in-a-bar. The help of one or two East European voices would no doubt have been welcome on the bottom line, but the basses sang quite beautifully in the cello-like passage where they have the tune. The other parts were equally responsive to the beauties of this piece – the effect of which on the American psyche is, I think, comparable to that of Nimrod in Britain.

Barber's lyrical genius also flowered in the exquisite song To be sung on the water. It was beautifully done as were two pieces by composers of later generations – Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium and Eric Whitacre's Sleep. So enchanting were the sopranos in this last item, as in fact was the whole choir, that a wish was expressed for a recording to be played last thing at night!

To give the Singers a well-earned break, Mark Hindley built up the organ's resources to good effect in Aaron Copland’s Episode, off-setting this serious piece with a nimble performance of Pietro Yon’s light-hearted Toccatina. There was a great sense of enjoyment from the audience, as indeed there had been throughout the whole evening.

Andrew Seivewright