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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

Celestial Banquet

St Patrick's Church, Patterdale
29 September 2012

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.

Henry Howard

Song of Songs

St John's Church, Keswick
23 June 2012

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

Song of Songs

St Peter & St Paul's Church, Stokesley
24 June 2012

As a member of the choir from 2004-9, it is probably not my place to write an impartial review of this concert, though I have now twice had the pleasure of inviting my old friends to perform in the shadow of more modest hills in North Yorkshire. The reviewer of the Keswick concert sums up my general reaction to the strength of the performance, though I suspect that the slight reserve in his judgement on some of the older polyphonic pieces might well have been moderated by a second hearing the following day. The confidence and blend of the choir made a programme that will have been quite unfamiliar to many in the audience speak with power. Once more, the Skempton and Rutti dazzled; performed with a virtuosity that had the local audience talking with admiration for some time afterwards. Again, Emma Ferrand's performances of Bach and twentieth century English pieces, as well as the Rutti, were eloquent, passionate and fluent in the extreme. It is a constant theme of recent Wordsworth reviews that the choir's programmes continue to stimulate and educate, and their already high standards continue to rise. In the two years since their last Stokesley concert, with further years under Mark Hindley's direction, this is most certainly true. May it long continue to be so!

Revd Paul Hutchinson

Membra Jesu Nostri

St Bede's Church, Carlisle
17 March 2012

Having recently moved to Carlisle, life is full of new discoveries; new places, new friends and new music. I can, with hand on heart, say that the introduction to the Wordsworth Singers has been a highlight amongst the newness.

I was fortunate enough to be amongst the audience at a performance of Buxtehude's Membra Jesu nostri, a work new to me, in the resonant and movingly appropriate setting of St Bede's Church, Wigton Road. The work, written in 1680 to Latin poetry ascribed to Arnulf of Louvain (d.1250) is in seven contrasting movements or cantatas, each addresses a part of Christ's body and begins with a biblical quotation. The colourful paintings behind the altar depicting scenes from Christ's life were therefore the perfect backdrop to 'a very personal meditation on the suffering of Christ and a very public profession of Faith and confidence in the salvation of mankind'.*

The piece, often called the first Lutheran oratorio, is exquisitely engaging in the perfect marriage of text with the vocal and instrumental writing. Each cantata has an instrumental introduction which the voices join seamlessly. There is much variety in the vocal and instrumental settings. At its full complement in Cantata VI the instrumentation is for a five part Consort of Viols and Continuo. We hear exposed writing for one or three voices and full choral settings of up to 5 parts. We hear wonderfully complex rhythms and spine tingling dissonances and resolutions.

This piece was given by musicians who were completely committed to it and who expressed themselves in myriad instrumental and vocal colours. The instrumental playing was enthralling throughout, especially the dialogue between the two violinists, Anna Östberg and Katie-Bethan Holmes. The solos and ensemble singing were at times moving in their elegant beauty and at other times affecting in their strength. Particularly touching for me was the singing of Julie Leavett and Fiona Weakley in Cantata VI To the heart - You have wounded my heart, my sister, my bride, you have wounded my heart. From Song of Songs, the pathos was expressed through sensitive and refined singing.

Within the finely balanced full choir, the many textures and colours were executed with carefully judged energy. There were memorable moments of the most glorious sound from the women's voices alone and within the most complex polyphony from the men and women were clear and rich lines. This full sound which was at the same time delicate was shown to full effect in VII To the face - Let your face shine upon your servant, save me in your mercy, where appropriately enough, the sound from the sopranos was wonderfully shiny. The joyful final Amen was luscious, and exciting with its 'outrageous cross rhythms'.*

Mark Hindley led both singers and instrumentalists from the chamber organ, with a fine, understated subtlety. An organ solo by Sweelinck played in each half of the concert by Mark gave space to meditate on the music and surroundings, bringing the singing into relief.

Generous applause showed the depth of the audience's appreciation for a wonderful evening of music making. I left light of step, having experienced a first which will definitely not be a last.

* from Mark Hindley’s programme notes

Charlotte Jackson

Baltic Amber

Victoria Hall, Grange-over-Sands
5 February 2012

The task of putting together a programme which has a strong theme and plenty of variety requires skill and imagination and the Wordsworth Singers' concert conducted by Mark Hindley at the Victoria Hall, Grange-over-Sands, was an exceptional achievement in this respect. "Baltic Amber" was the evocatively titled programme which contained music by composers from the Baltic States.

The concert opened with the Cherubic Hymn by Glinka and the wonderfully sustained sonorous chords at the outset and lively and radiant final Alleluias showed that this choir, which I have known for many years, has never been on better form. Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat maintained this excellent standard – here special mention must be made of Fiona Weakley’s clear and confident sustained notes, which did much to ensure security of pitch in spite of a couple of small tuning lapses within the choir.

Buxtehude's Missa Brevis took us back to the 17th century and here the singers showed precision, rhythmic energy as well as lively elegance. The beautifully controlled ending was particularly impressive.

Kristina Vasiliauskaite’s Jeremiah Song brought us back to the 21st century and the singers revelled in its approachable harmonic style and rich textures. The first half closed with Hugo Alfvén’s Aftonen (Evening) and the lush harmonies evoked a calm evening sunset with the chorus humming being particularly effective.

The second half continued to delight with more controlled and expressive singing. Three motets by Peter Lange-Müller were notable for their elegant dance-like rhythms and some diligent work had been done on Danish pronunciation. For me the highlight was Long Road by Eriks Esenvalds; here, there were rich, beautifully tuned harmonies and most effective juxtaposition of main chorus and semichorus. The addition of pipes and gentle bells in the final bars was absolutely magical.

The concert ended with Górecki’s Totus Tuus, written for the third return visit of Pope John Paul II to his native Poland in 1987. This was an impassioned performance with the singers coping effortlessly with the long sustained passages and challenging key-changes.

It was an inspired idea to involve the pianist Sam Hutchings and his well chosen Russian pieces provided an effective contrast in each half of the concert.

We departed feeling very happy that we had braved the snowy conditions to enjoy what was one of the best choral concerts heard in this area for a very long time.

Hugh Davies