3 March 2013
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!
The Wordsworth Singers, conducted by Mark Hindley, presented an intriguing programme at Patterdale on Saturday 29th September, of choral settings of texts for the feast of Corpus Christi.
Unlike most high days in the Church's calendar, the origins of Corpus Christi ('the Body of Christ') are not lost in antiquity; in fact it was invented by papal decree in the thirteenth century, with hymns, in celebration of the doctrine of transubstantiation, written by St Thomas Aquinas; and it was settings of these hymns that we heard here. Now it might be thought that an hour and a quarter of some notoriously thorny theology by mediaeval Christendom's greatest intellect might make for rather dry fare. Not a bit of it: we were treated to a rich and varied feast.
Aquinas' celebration of the institution of the Eucharist, removed from its austere origins in Holy Week, is by turns triumphant and meditative, and the singers were in fine voice to do justice to it all, from glorious Renaissance music for double choir by Victoria, Palestrina and Hassler to the concentrated radiance of modern French settings by Messiaen and Villette. The fervency of the opening and the closing Alleluias of Morales' O sacrum convivium framed some beautifully poised quiet singing, especially from the sopranos; Bruckner's Pange lingua was accorded unusually full dynamic contrast to thrilling, almost symphonic effect. The choir's superb attention to the words was audible throughout, never more so than in Anthony Pitts' Adoro te, the only English setting (alas that there was no space or time for Finzi's Lo, the full final sacrifice); they seemed as undaunted by the exposed passages of the 15th-century style of Johannes Regis as by the dense harmonies of the late 20th-century Pierre Villette.
The choir has recorded the programme and by this showing the forthcoming CD should be a joy. "Lovely!" muttered the chap in the audience behind me at the end of Willaert's radiant, sustained O salutaris, written for St Mark's in Venice. And so it was.
The Wordsworth Singers' concert given last Saturday in St John's Church Keswick took as its theme choral music inspired by the exuberant text of the "Song of Solomon" in the Old Testament. Mark Hindley, Director of Music, doesn’t shy away from challenging his singers and introducing them to both demanding and unfamiliar repertoire. I felt they were particularly successful with the later works which required a more homogenous sound and less equality across the vocal parts. The contemporary composer Howard Skempton's four movement Rise up my love relies almost totally on constantly shifting sensuous harmonies. The first movement was absolutely beautiful with perfectly controlled singing, excellent diction and clarity. The second movement is written for men’s voices only and demonstrated the richness and depth of singing in the bass section. The third movement My beloved is gone down for sopranos and altos was a vehicle for the excellent singing of this very proficient group whilst the final movement How fair and how pleasant was absolutely ravishing.
For me the high points of the concert were the two settings from Lieder der Liebe by the Swiss composer Carl Rütti written in 1993, which were accompanied by the cellist Emma Ferrand. These works both demand a choir of the highest standard and the Wordsworth Singers were not found wanting. There was considerable textural interest, with contrasting sections from men's and ladies' voices, considerable chromaticism and a cello part which started with harmonic glissandi before becoming more melodic. The second of the Rütti songs Behold begins most effectively first with the cello, then choral speaking before the choir vibrantly takes up the cello's melody and the composer uses the word "leaping" from the text to drive the music exuberantly forward. The singing was energetic, vigorous and rhythmical and Fiona Weakley's soprano solo soared above all this making the whole piece dramatic, inspiring and uplifting.
The Wordsworth Singers' concerts certainly give value for money and space does not allow me to mention the other works by Guerrero, Morales, Grieg, Cipriano de Rore, Monteverdi, Tomkins, Schütz and Walton which were, in the main, successfully performed. In addition to all this we were treated to three solo cello pieces played beautifully by the international instrumentalist Emma Ferrand: four movements from Bach's first solo suite for cello, Hamabdil by Bantock and, in his anniversary year, Delius's Romance – both these works being accompanied by Mark Hindley on the piano.
Yet another truly memorable concert by the Wordsworth Singers bringing unfamiliar works to both the performers and listeners.
John Cooper Green