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Spanish Gold

St Michael's Church, Dalston

21 February 2015

Mark Hindley, conductor of the Wordsworth Singers, demonstrated courage and conviction when he chose a lengthy programme of unaccompanied Spanish secular and religious works of the Romantic and modern period, sung in Latin, Spanish and Basque. I suspect no member of the large audience at Dalston’s St. Michael’s Church had previously come across even one of the works, making a demanding experience for the listener accustomed to recognising at least some ‘old friends’ in a programme. Nevertheless the result was compelling, because this choir performs with impeccable attention to tempo, dynamics, rhythm, intonation and balance. The overall effect resembled observing some large, exotic and elaborate edifice being carefully constructed, ultimately achieving something of great power and beauty.

To pick out a few components of this experience, The Nightingale by Basque composer Jesús Guridi opened dramatically in unison and subsequently the sustained bass notes suggested the drone of Basque pipes. Fernando Sor’s O Crux Ave was sung with appropriately passionate pleading. Manuel Oltra’s Three Love Songs brought the first recognisably Spanish intervals and rhythms with repeated staccato passages and Spanish decorations. To finish, Antonio José’s Five Castilian Songs were full of life and humour, making huge demands on the choir to produce percussive and guitar-like effects.

A real guitar, beautifully played by Manus Noble, provided perfect, quiet contrast. Leo Brouwer’s A November Day was delicate and hauntingly languid. Tarrega’s familiar Memories of the Alhambra with its evocative tremolo sustaining the melody completed the sense of Spanish Gold.

Manus can be heard in solo concert at St. Cuthbert’s Church, Carlisle on 19th March.

JULIET ROWCROFT

Fire and Light

St Martin's Church, Brampton
29 November 2014

Angels literally descended upon St Martin's Church in Brampton on Saturday evening as we were treated to the latest tour de force by Cumbria's premier choir, the Wordsworth Singers. Entitled Fire and Light the incredibly diverse programme took on the subject of angels and how they are represented in music spanning some 500 years.

We perhaps think of angels today as benevolent spirits looking after our best interests, but tonight we were reminded that different ages and diverse cultures saw them as powerful, fiery, intimidating and often mischievous beings too and we were both soothed and stirred up in equal measure by the sheer breadth of repertoire, all skilfully woven together by the choir's musical director, Mark Hindley. Under his authoritative guidance precision and control were paramount from beginning to end. The effect was spellbinding from a choir clearly at the top of their game, able to exploit the many and varied contrasts throughout the concert, whether it be the sustained rich harmonic language of Rachmaninov or the sense of drama with Stainer, the clashy anguished chords of Howells or the lush harmonies from William Harris' Faire is the heaven. Breath control and dynamic subtlety came to the fore with such luminescence during Whitacre's Lux aurumque that not even the less than harmonic exhaust noises from Brampton's boy racers outside could prevent the long-sustained and pianissimo notes from holding sway and hushing those warring angels without. The composer himself wrote in the score "...If the tight harmonies are carefully tuned and balanced they will shimmer and glow" and this was achieved skilfully and seemingly effortlessly by the choir.

From the organ stool, Hugh Davies once again added an assured and sensitively balanced support to the choir, never overpowering but richly diverse in tonal colour to add an extra sparkle to the programme.

The rousing conclusion to the evening came from Parry's well known Blest Pair of Sirens, a swashbuckling choral and organ feast that drew out the genuine enjoyment and exuberance from each and every singer, safe in the knowledge that they had delivered this imaginative programme with sensitivity and musical aplomb.

JERRY KING

Alleluya

St John's Church, Keswick
18 October 2014

On a dark, blustery evening in mid-October, a large and appreciative audience gathered in the warmth and light of St John's Church in Keswick to hear a concert of mostly Tudor music performed by The Wordsworth Singers, under their Director, Mark Hindley.

The concert was titled "Alleluya" and sub-titled "an evening of sumptuous and joyful Early English music, to include works by Sheppard, Taverner, Tye and Aston". And so it proved to be – glorious choral music sung in St John's richly reverberant acoustic, with the choir standing well forward at the head of the nave, thus projecting the music and words to the audience with great clarity and musicianship.

Early English music, especially that of the Tudor Period, has seen something of a revival in recent years, no doubt helped by the likes of The Sixteen, who have become internationally famous and, as recently as three weeks ago, sang in Carlisle Cathedral. Their programme also included four (different) works by John Sheppard and that concert certainly bore comparison with tonight's.

The Sixteenth Century was a time of great political and religious turbulence in this country, with the English Reformation following on from that on the nearby continent, but it was also a time for inspirational choral compositions and we were treated to ten of the finest of these in this evening's recital.

The programme was neatly divided into four parts, with three works in each of the two quarters before the interval and two each in the quarters following the interval. Altogether we heard four works by John Sheppard (1515-58), three by John Taverner (1490-1545), two by Christopher Tye (1497-1573) and a climactic one, Gaude virgo mater Christi, by Hugh Aston (1485-1558). All used sacred texts and were polyphonic settings, employing a number of independent lines of melody, many contain elements of traditional medieval Plainsong and ranged from the loud, energetic and exciting to the quieter and more reflective. The choir coped magnificently with the many contrasts in tempo, rhythm, texture and volume of the music, while maintaining pitch and the balance between the parts.

A special feature of this concert was the two sets of solos, played by lutenist Alex McCartney, sandwiched between the main groups of vocal items. The lute is a rather quiet instrument but Alex seated himself in an ideal position centrally between the choir stalls and so was visible and audible to all. In the first half of the concert he played four pieces by Anthony Holborne (1545-1602), a Fantasy and three Pavans. In the second half he played two pieces by John Dowland (1563-1626), a Fancy and The Frog Galliard. These were all performed with great delicacy and precision and formed a delightful contrast to the more full-bodied sound of the 30-strong choir.

MIKE TOWN

Celtic Routes

Carlisle Cathedral
13 July 2014

The Carlisle International Festival closed with an accomplished programme of Celtic songs by the
Wordsworth Singers.

The audience were treated to a well-balanced assortment of Celtic moments, which were supplemented by director Mark Hindley's thorough and extensive programme notes, not to mention his translations of the texts, delivered to the audience with such humour as to draw the audience further in.

The rhythmic opening song Pase el agoa instantly demonstrated the choir's superior vocal balance and clear diction.

The programme featured the music of Granville Bantock whose arrangements of traditional melodies from Ireland and the Hebrides were quite beautiful and showed that this choir not only blends beautifully, but also consists of individual local talent.

Many programmes this year will contain the music of George Dyson to commemorate 50 years since his death. Ho-ro, My Nut-brown Maiden was a lovely piece with modulations galore, ably negotiated by the singers.

The highlight for me was The Gallant Weaver by James MacMillan. This was stunning. The atmosphere that was created was so pure that even a pin dare not drop and disturb it. The silence after the final phrase was only broken by the richly deserved applause.

Two charming pieces by Jean Langlais finished the concert, the Deux Chansons Populaires de Haute-Bretagne were performed with the wilful exuberance the text demanded.

The choir and director seemed almost symbiotic throughout and the expressive dynamic colours they created together made this a very special performance indeed. A treat for those who attended, and a big miss for those who didn't.

JONATHAN MILLICAN