United Reformed Church, Cockermouth
8 February 2014
It was billed as 'an evening of radiant choral music by J S Bach and some of the many composers profoundly influenced by his genius, including Brahms, Mendelssohn, Cornelius and Nystedt', and so it was for the almost capacity audience who attended the Wordsworth Singers' concert in Cockermouth's URC Church last Saturday, 8th February.
For those of us who rate Bach's music as some of the finest ever written, particularly for its astonishing variety and technical mastery, the title of the event, "Immortal Bach" was immediately an exciting and intriguing prospect. Nor were we disappointed. The choir and their guest pianist, Lynda Cochrane, excelled and thrilled us throughout the concert.
The venue, with its low, almost flat, ceiling - so unlike most churches and chapels in the county with their high pointed naves, - could have been a difficult location for this 30-strong choir, perhaps tending to overwhelm the audience with sound during the climaxes. However, under Mark Hindley's expert direction, the dynamic range was perfect for the setting – sitting on the back row I heard every word in the quiet passages, including several soloists from within the choir, while the loudest sections were full-bodied, perfectly filling the church with rich vocal sounds.
Bach's Singet dem Herrn provided a thrilling start to the evening's music making: it was performed confidently, with great vigour in the first and third sections, which contrasted nicely with the more reflective middle section. Immediately after this, Busoni's transcription for piano of Bach's organ Chorale Prelude Nun komm der Heiden Heiland was played with great colour and excellent phrasing by Lynda Cochrane. She then followed this with the second Menuet by Edward MacDowell, based on one of JSB's short pieces in the Anna Magdalena Notebook, with great poise and delicacy.
The choir returned to sing Peter Cornelius' popular The Three Kings, in which the soloist's excellent bass voice rose beautifully above the choir's chorale accompaniment. There followed Heinrich Kaminski's beautiful Vergiss mein nicht from his set of six chorale settings, in which the chorale melody was probably written by Bach himself – here the choir relished the late Romantic harmonies to the full, in a highly polished performance.
The most unusual work of the evening was Immortal Bach (the title piece) by 20th Century Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt. Although starting simply with the first few bars of Bach's chorale melody, the choir then separated into several sub-choirs, singing the music at different tempi, which produced some astonishingly dissonant harmonies, which would tax the intonation of any group of singers. However, the Wordsworth Singers held their nerve (and pitch) triumphantly!
The second half of the concert started with Brahms' motet Warum ist das licht gegeben, an extended work based on texts from the Biblical books of Job and Lamentations, as well as the letter of James. It was sung with great poignancy – the phrasing was beautifully executed throughout. This was followed by two more of MacDowell's delightful Menuets, which provided some lighter relief, after Brahms' intensity, as well as George Shearing's Get off my Bach – this was certainly modern jazz, but included a large number of musical ideas derived from Bach.
Mendelssohn's Warum toben die Heiden is a fairly lengthy setting of part of Psalm 2, whose structure owes much to Bach, but the harmonies are distinctively those of Mendelssohn, who was largely responsible for the revival of interest in Bach's music in the early 19th Century. This was a particularly moving performance, with two 4-part choirs matching perfectly, plus solo sections, whose voices blended beautifully with the overall ensemble.
The concert ended with Glenn Gould's hilarious So you want to write a Fugue? – in many ways a parody of a Bach Fugue, full of characteristic Bach-type figures and counterpoint, together with very amusing words, which the choir evidently enjoyed singing immensely and which brought an excellent concert to a very enjoyable conclusion. Well done, all!