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The Passion

The Chapel, Austin Friars St Monica's School, Carlisle
5 April 2014

Elias Canetti described Christianity as a 'religion of lament'. In Passiontide, we Christians go into lamentation overdrive: the sheer sorrow of the (temporary) death of God, for which, killed by humans, we feel not only sorrow but guilt. And our poets add on layers of drama, horror, and grief. What the Wordsworth Singers showed us last Saturday night was that the Renaissance Church did lamentation big style, and they had not given up sonority for Lent. The massive washy acoustic of Austin Friars' tall cavernous Chapel in Carlisle proved an ideal space in which to allow the Wordsworth's 33 voices to produce a full fat sound to do the season proud.

On the menu were monumental polyphonic writings for large 'a capella' choirs, produced by German, Spanish and Italian composers inspired by the vastness of St Mark's Venice, a sound world more bewildering even than Carlisle's magnificent Citadel railway station. How could any musical offering fill such a space? Oddly an answer came humbly from a single viol player. Elizabeth Dodd treated us to a set of pieces which helpfully broke up each half of the concert with the far more intimate sound of a single instrument.

The choir was able to show off the range of sonorities at its disposal with a strong opening in Hassler's Miserere: trombone-strong basses grounded full chords, coloured by firm tenors and rich altos and topped by plangent, soaring sopranos. The concluding "Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto", despite its Lenten context, displayed a gratifyingly visceral magnificence. Yes, those Christians love their grief.

And on to Palestrina, the restrained conservative whose smooth progressions and dissonance are always carefully prepared and controlled (as the Wordsworth's musical director Mark Hindley put it). Hindley's direction ensured that the lines of mediaeval chant that underlie the music were ever flowing, and wove deliciously in the echoing space of the chapel above us.

The viol music gave us popular tunes heard by the same writers and singers who would have been handed the wet-ink parts of the choral pieces in our programme. Both the tenor and bass viol (Elizabeth Dodd showed us a little of each) are played a little like a cello but have six rather than four strings, and are fretted like a guitar for better intonation. The richness comes from the bowing of the instrument: a clever player can stroke combinations of strings to produce a harmonised melody. Elizabeth Dodd led us into a world where a single viol player could hold court to a rapt audience, sending out a veritable orchestra of sound.

The flowing lines of Giovanni Croce's O triste spectaculum are in my notes, but utterly obscured in superficial memory by what followed. Carlo Gesualdo is precious to early musicians: he allows us gentle folk to imagine we are as glamorously dangerous as no doubt he was. He gained a reluctant notoriety as a butcher recluse, having killed his wife and her lover (oh, and several others) and retreated to his walled castle to evade vengeance and write exquisite but fascinatingly weird choral music. The Wordsworths obviously loved this one (O vos omnes), which to me had strange premonitions of Bruckner some 250 years later. As Gesualdo looked to his God for salvation, we glimpse a terror worthy of any Gothic thriller.

In Melchior Franck's Inspice vulnera ['Gaze on his wounds'], Mark Hindley proved his worth in keeping an energetic tempo, resisting the obvious temptation to allow richness of sound (palpable and pleasing) to deteriorate into self-indulgence.

The Guerrero motets that began the second half showed off the lapidary dignity of the basses, whose sweeping chant lines made the music sing, while the upper voices decorated their work.

Then in Victoria's Vexilla Regis we heard from both upper and lower voices in Gregorian chant verses, interspersed with polyphony leading to a ringing cantus firmus from the sopranos and a warm velvety 'Amen'.

Who would have predicted fireworks at the end? Two delightful riffs from the sopranos topped off the evening, in Anerio's Stabat Mater. Yet another huge piece that suited our lofty venue, showed off the consistency of the singers who divided self-confidently into three equally strong antiphonal choirs, and proved that lamentation, and our human longing for hope in our darkest hours, inspire the greatest art.