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.