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Rachmaninoff Vespers

Cartmel Priory
21 April 2013

Rachmaninoff's All Night Vigil (often incorrectly referred to as Vespers) is a cruel test for a choir. The fifteen sections encompass the texts of the Orthodox Easter service and last for an hour or longer, during which there is no respite for the unaccompanied singers. As well as needing great stamina, the vocal writing is frequently at the extremities of the range and the intensity of the composer's vision makes few concessions to practicality. The Wordsworth Singers surmounted the enormous challenges of Rachmaninoff's score with consummate ease: this was a performance which captured to perfection the vast emotional range of a work composed at white-heat in just two weeks. The immediacy of the composer's response to the texts was communicated in the most spellbinding way. From the awesome power of the alleluias in Praise the name of the Lord to the spine-tingling slow descent of the basses to bottom Bb at the end of the Nunc dimittis, the dynamic range of the choir was breathtaking. Particular mention must be made of Anne-Marie Kerr whose rich contralto voice and perfect enunciation made it easy to imagine that she must be a native Russian! The performance opened with the intonation sung by the dynamic conductor of the Wordsworth Singers, Mark Hindley, and from the first note to the last it was clear that he was in complete control. Every phrase was beautifully shaped, intonation was perfect and tempi invariably felt exactly right.

How fortunate we are to have a choir of this calibre in Cumbria and what a privilege to be present at such an unforgettable performance of this masterpiece! The sizeable audience were fully aware that they had been at something very special.

Adrian Self

Rachmaninoff Vespers

Austin Friars St Monica's School, Carlisle
20 April 2013

On Saturday evening the eloquent, lofty, clean-lined beauty of the chapel of Austin Friars St Monica's School filled with the rich sonorities of Rachmaninoff's setting of the holy Liturgy of the Easter All-Night Vigil. Musical instrumental accompaniment being forbidden in Russian Orthodoxy, the clarity and tonal accuracy of the thirty-five voices of the Wordsworth Singers needed not only to be of the very highest quality, but also to blend and move in perfect ensemble through changes in colour, texture, range and dynamic, all the while presenting the lines of Liturgy for their own sake and not for the sake of a concert performance. So spell-binding was the quality of singing – including an extraordinarily beautiful alto solo in 'Bless the Lord, O my soul' – that members of the audience were hardly mere recipients; rather, they were invited into a closer understanding of the way in which Rachmaninoff's creativity, coupled with the ancient texts and prayers of the Orthodox tradition, can offer nourishment both rich and rare. Although the musical scope and complexity of the composition make considerable demands of all the singers – not least in managing the entire text in Russian – Mark Hindley's sensitive yet unambiguous conducting was captivating for choir and audience alike. He drew out extraordinary richness in choral
breadth and volume (and, of course, serious basso depth) in, for example, the opening 'Call to Worship'; yet he also crafted delicate moments of almost unbelievable transparency in which pianissimo suspensions resolved into almost whispered beauty as choir and conductor worked absolutely as one. On Saturday we witnessed something of what the psalmist must have meant by 'the beauty of holiness' – and perhaps, also, a touch of the holiness of beauty.

Jeremy Goulding

 

Springtime

3 March 2013

 

Eton Choirbook

St Michael's Church, Stanwix, Carlisle
24 November 2012

It was as always a pleasure to attend a concert by the Wordsworth Singers. Over the years they have demonstrated their proficiency in music of every period, and in this concert they went back to some of the earliest sacred music still surviving. Though about half of the Eton Choirbook is lost there are still over 40 pieces extant, dating to before the Reformation. On the evidence of this concert they deserve more frequent airing. In the late 15th century when much of this music was written, composers seemed less bound by the conventions of later Renaissance polyphony with which many of us are more familiar. The result is an apparent personal devotion and response to the words especially notable in the first two pieces. The peace and gentleness of Walter Lambe's Nesciens Mater reflected the picture it presented of Mary nursing her baby. The setting of Ave Maria Mater Dei by William Cornysh, using only the three lower voices, was beautiful but sombre, emphasising not so much the praise of Mary as the hope that she would use her power to protect us from the destruction of sin. The rest of the music the choir performed consisted of three more extended pieces. The settings used partly the full choir and partly smaller groups of singers affording many variations in texture and allowing the Wordsworth's fine array of soloists to have a role. This was particularly the case in the last piece, the Magnificat Regale by Robert Fayrfax. Throughout the performance the singers displayed their customary attention to excellent diction and faultless intonation.

Between the vocal items we enjoyed two sets of short pieces for the Troubadour harp, beautifully played by Jean Altshuler. This is a genre of music with which I was entirely unfamiliar, and I feel it would be a pleasure to hear more. The first set were songs which had been arranged for solo harp, and I would like to hear them performed by a singer with harp accompaniment. How many people learned at school that Richard the Lionheart was a keen musician, and how few of us have been able to hear one of his compositions!

Janet Davies