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Light of Flanders

St Michael's Church, Dalston, near Carlisle
Holy Trinity and St George's RC Church, Kendal
23 & 24 April 2016

A small but enthusiastic audience greeted the Wordsworth Singers for a concert in Holy Trinity & St George’s Catholic Church, Kendal on Sunday afternoon 24 April. The concert was entitled ‘Light of Flanders’ with repertoire drawn from the period c.1400 to 1600 when an important group of northern European composers exerted a huge influence on the development of Renaissance polyphony. To present a programme of such a specialised nature is a huge challenge artistically; moreover, this was not the kind of programme guaranteed to pull in the crowds so the Wordsworth Singers must be congratulated on their enterprise as well as their performance.

This fine award-winning choir (Cumbria Life Culture Award 2015, ‘Choir of the Year’) draws its membership mainly from north Cumbria and makes infrequent visits to the south of the county. The choir’s conductor, Mark Hindley, is a professional musician with a well-established reputation for his work as an organist and choir trainer. His excellent, informative and scholarly notes in the beautifully produced programme helped to place this largely unfamiliar repertoire in perspective.

The choir makes a very robust sound. An hour and a half of unaccompanied singing is a challenge to any choir but the Wordsworth Singers rose to this. They are fortunate in having many voices of good quality to draw upon to form smaller units within the main body when required and there were some lovely moments when these smaller units were used to give contrasts of colour and texture.

It was a brave gesture to open the concert with Guillaume Dufay’s motet Nuper rosarum flores. This work is rhythmically very intricate – the individual parts moving at different speeds – and is usually regarded as the preserve of professional ensembles; and yet here was an amateur group giving a convincing performance of one of the composer’s most celebrated works.

Similar rhythmical complexities are encountered in Johannes Ockeghem’s Intemerata Dei Mater which followed and again the singers succeeded in pursuing their individual lines without any outward sign of strain.

Renaissance polyphony sets a challenge for singers: they need to stay in tune, of course, and, at the same time, be able to sustain and shape long melodic lines smoothly, maintaining pure vowel sounds. All this, the choir did well.  However, the balance between the various parts was not always quite so successful. Numerically, the sopranos and basses far outweighed the altos and tenors and there were times when the melodic lines of the inner parts were obscured by the very strong soprano line. Perhaps the resonant church acoustic – which is wonderful for this repertoire – may have been partly responsible for this. However, it was a joy to hear this marvellous music performed with such expertise in Kendal.

CLIVE WALKLEY

Germany Renaissance & Romance

Crosthwaite Church, Keswick
28 February 2016

Concerts at Crosthwaite 2016 got off to a resounding start on Sunday evening with a concert by the Wordsworth Singers under the inspiring leadership of their conductor Mark Hindley.  It was an unusual programme, including works by German composers of the 16th and 19th centuries.  The concert was well supported by a large and enthusiastic audience.

The outstanding work was the Mass in E flat for double choir by Josef Rheinberger. Although his music is not widely known today, he was an influential figure both as a composer and teacher in Munich, and his organ sonatas have remained in the repertoire. In this fine Mass setting the two four-part choirs often sing answering phrases antiphonally, and there is much beautiful counterpoint interweaving throughout the texture. The Wordsworth Singers brought out these features most effectively, with a wide range of warm expression.

Three hundred years earlier the leading Flemish composer Orlande de Lassus was also appointed to the court at Munich, where he became one of the most prolific composers of his day, alongside Palestrina in Italy and Byrd in England, with whom his work is often compared. His set of motets entitled Prophetiae Sibyllarum (Prophecies of the Sibyls) exemplifies his polyphonic style although some of the harmony is rather more daring than usual. It was an enterprising choice and there were many good features, including choral blend and balance, but in some quieter and more chromatic passages the pitch was not always consistent.

The best known of the three featured composers was Mendelssohn, whose Six Motets for the Church’s year were written for Berlin Cathedral. There is an uplifting optimism in the Christmas motet Rejoice, ye people of the earth which is contrasted with the more reflective style of the Passiontide motet Lord, remember not our wrongdoings, where the words were given a more personal impact by a solo quartet consisting of Julie Leavett, Pippa Mayfield, Pete Bowyer and Simon Mortimer.

The award-winning Wordsworth Singers have further concerts in the pipeline, of which details may be found on their website, www.wordsworthsingers.org.uk. The next concert at Crosthwaite Church, Keswick, will be an organ recital given by John Kitchen, Organist of Edinburgh University, on Monday 18th April at 6.00 p.m.

IAN HARE

 

Sweetness Magnifical

St James Church, Whitehaven
28 November 2015

On a truly filthy November night, fifty (at least) of us braved an unheated church at the top of a windy hill in Whitehaven to hear what is without doubt the finest body of voices in the region perform at the top of their game.

The choir began with Finzi’s anguished, utterly sincere and personal Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice, which was given the pace and breadth to reveal the tragedy at the heart of this work. Aquinas’ hymns are in the tradition of praise, but Finzi, not a religious man, sees beyond them to the ultimate human tragedy of death and sacrifice, a mood that director Mark Hindley and the choir understood and communicated intelligently, respectfully and without sentimentality. The final “Amen” is among the most beautiful settings ever of this over-used word, transcendental in its beauty, and brought reverently to a conclusion with great care and vocal control.

After Ernest MacMillan’s entertaining and virtuosic Cortège Académique, superbly played by Simon Niemiński on the three-manual Norman and Beard organ, the choir gave us Walton’s The Twelve. 

Walton can suffer (sometimes justly) from accusations of insincerity, so great was his facility and so obvious his mastery of craft, but this piece is redeemed by Auden’s searingly honest and at times uncomfortably graphic libretto; and when it can find one, a technically accomplished performance, which this was. Having been present at the rehearsals, I know well how hard this piece is to put together, and what a great deal of private practice has to be done to lift these notes off the page. This was a terrific performance, full of energy, commitment, clarity and fidelity to the text. 

These composers were rich men of little or idiosyncratic faith writing religious music for an agnostic audience perturbed by progress and war. Bax, by virtue of his great wealth, had the least motivation of them all to practice intellectual rigour, and it showed. In Mater Ora Filium however, constrained by the exigencies of the Latin text, with its imaginative interpolation of English verse, his creativity shone out. The complex polyphonic structure was meticulously, and beautifully, brought to life. Every detail of this challenging work was made clear and comprehensible by the unaccompanied double choir in the warm, if at times unforgiving, acoustic of Carlisle Spedding’s elegant interior (Pevsner called it “the finest Georgian church interior in the country”).

Another virtuosic interlude from Simon Niemiński, Hollins’ A Song of Sunshine, preceded the final work, Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, a piece as well known as The Messiah in the choral repertoire, and as likely to suffer formulaic, indifferent performance. Not so in this characterful interpretation, which took great care to illuminate Smart’s religious ravings by means of a careful and respectful fidelity to the text, never however losing sight of Britten’s abundant energy, playfulness, and willingness to take the tragic ostinato to its painful conclusion, for example in “for I am in twelve hardships”. The choir sang clear as a siren in Britten’s heartfelt message of encouragement through the iron curtain to his friend Shostakovich, underscoring “for I am under the same accusation with my Saviour” with Shostakovich’s own initials.

Simon Niemiński accompanied at all times with sensitivity and grace, particularly in the choice of registrations, and special mention must go to all the soloists throughout the evening, in particular Fiona Weakley’s beautifully judged and resonant alto solo, “O Lord, my God” in The Twelve. Mark Hindley rehearsed and conducted the choir with intelligence, warmth and insight, and his clarity in direction was a joy to watch.

There was a pause of true appreciation before warm applause, and we came out onto the rain-lashed, gale-blown streets, warmed now and for days to come by the memory of the Wordsworths’ artistry and generosity.

NICK BUTTERS

Pearls of the Italian Baroque

St Thomas's Church, Kendal
13 June 2015

This was an evening of truly sumptuous baroque choral music, interspersed with two impressive cello solos by Bach and Vivaldi played beautifully by Cecily Smith.

The Choir, under the expert direction of Mark Hindley, filled the listener with enjoyment and confidence. The luscious music flowed, always with impressive attention to detail, intonation, and dynamics appropriate for a sensitive delivery of the texts.

For some of us, the music was mostly unfamiliar and this provided an extra interest. There were pieces by Lotti, Gesualdo, D. Scarlatti, A. Scarlatti and Carissimi. The choir was happy both with and without instrumental continuo accompaniment. The continuo, which consisted of a double bass, cello and chamber organ added excitement and colour to the choruses and was always played with great precision and sensitivity.

The singers were arranged in various positions depending on the number of voice parts in the pieces, and were obviously experienced enough to be happy with this.

It is impossible to select a favourite item as all were so good, but perhaps Gesualdo’s interesting harmonic progressions in O vos omnes were really well executed, and the expert solo singing in Domenico Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater was impressive. Carissimi’s Missa L’homme armé was a magnificent ending to a wonderful concert which was very enthusiastically appreciated by the audience.

It was a privilege to listen to such a dedicated ensemble who produced a very professional result.

MARGARET PATTINSON