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Voci di Venezia

St John's Church, Keswick
23 January 2010

For his first concert as conductor of the Wordsworth Singers Mark Hindley didn’t choose an easy path but one which challenged the choir and in the main was very successful. His programme entitled "Voci di Venezia" was given in St John's Church, Keswick last Saturday and consisted of music from the sixteenth and seventeenth century associated with St Mark's, Venice either through influence or directly.  Such composers as Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli and Schütz may be familiar to many of us but there were also works by less well known composers such as Willaert, Andrea Gabrieli, Croce and Hassler. The challenge of performing these works comes in their construction and the forces they employ. Only one of the works was written for the normal four part choir, with which we are so familiar, but the thirty two singers were frequently split into two and sometimes three choirs. To add to the difficulty of performing these works the choirs were sometimes placed around the Church to the front, sides and behind the audience with the conductor having to control these polychoral effects whilst standing in the middle at some distance from the performers. In addition to the choirs there was also a very fine brass quartet consisting of two trumpets and two trombones who joined with the singers as a separate group. To hear this type of music live, performed in such an authentic way is a very rare and overwhelming experience and one that any electronic media cannot accurately replicate.

One must congratulate the performers on the ease with which they repositioned themselves in the church between each piece which helped the concert flow. Only a choir of the calibre of the Wordsworth Singers can really do these pieces justice as they make considerable demands on the performers in both the complexity of the writing and the vocal range. Not all the vocal entries in the contrapuntal sections were assured and there was some lack of focus in some of the more complex rhythms and change of metre,nevertheless the overriding experience was of an excellent choir with a true musical understanding. There were some real highlights and the performance of Schütz’s motet Der engel sprach zu den Hirten and works in the second half by Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli and Hassler will not easily be forgotten.

Mention should also be made of the brass who played with great musicality in two solo works and enhanced enormously many of the choral works. This was an excellent start to Mark Hindley's reign as conductor and if this programme is anything to go by Cumbria is in for some very interesting vocal concerts which should not be missed.

JCG

In Green Pastures

St Andrew's Church, Penrith
27 June 2009

The Wordsworth Singers were founded in 1997 and since that time have established themselves as one of the finest chamber choirs in the north of England. Much of the credit for their recent success can be ascribed to the inspirational direction of Edward Caswell. His final appearance as conductor featured works by three of the great 19th century German Romantic composers, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Brahms in a programme well suited to the spacious acoustics of St. Andrew's Church, Penrith.

From the outset the choir sang with a confident and relaxed sound, the soprano line in particular dealing with high notes and difficult intervals effortlessly. The intense harmonies of the opening unaccompanied motets by Brahms (O Heiland, reiss die Himmel and Es ist das Heil) would be a challenging start to any concert, but the control of dynamics and phrasing showed a choir assured in its teamwork and excellent in its balance. The gentler harmonies of Schubert's setting of Psalm 23 brought some beautiful sounds from ladies' voices while the rarely-heard Gebet was almost like a choral setting of a lieder ballad with its inventive piano accompaniment, dramatic moods and elaborate vocal lines.

Two contrasting works by Mendelssohn began the second part of the programme. Fiona Weakley showed both power and sensitivity as soprano soloist in the ever-popular Hear My Prayer while the rich harmonic textures of the unaccompanied Nunc Dimittis were sung most evocatively. Three further motets by Brahms followed, the choir responding to the challenging and advanced harmonic style of the third (Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein) with particular conviction. The final work, Brahms's Geistliches Lied was almost an epilogue, gentle and heartfelt, with a quite ravishing Amen.

Ian Hare was, as ever, an excellent and unobtrusive accompanist on the organ (and on the piano in the Schubert works) and made his own contribution to the evening with two Brahms choral preludes for organ, including the exquisitely-phrased Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen, and a lively performance of the majestic first movement of Mendelssohn's Sonata No 3.

Colin Marston

Sound the Trumpet

The Priory Church, Lanercost
2 May 2009

The ancient walls of Lanercost Priory were again host to a splendid musical event when The Wordsworth Singers, with their Director of Music, Edward Caswell and guest soloist, trumpeter Mark O'Keeffe, presented a remarkable programme of twentieth century music, with a final twist from the 16th century.

By any standards this was an ambitious programme that included works by Vaughan Williams, MacMillan (1959) and Taverner (1490-1545) and which at times provided severe challenges to choir and audience alike. With works which included Vaughan Williams Mass in G and Valiant for TruthIn splendoribus sanctorum by James MacMillan and Taverner's epic antiphonal motet, O splendor gloriae, the singers beautifully, and with sensitivity and power, expressed the threads which bind the music of our own time with that of the past.

In contrast, the solo, unaccompanied trumpet in an ultra modern piece by Peter Maxwell Davies appeared, at first hearing, to be a mere selection of random notes. There was, however, no doubt about the virtuosity of O'Keeffe, whose pure and at times almost ear-splitting tone in the soaring acoustic of the Priory made exciting listening and contrasted well with the simple beauty of the Irish Folk Song, My Lagan Love that he played in the second half.

But this is a choir that has now 'grown up'. Many a professional choir would have balked at tackling Amore langueo by Francis Pott (1957), an extraordinarily difficult piece, which they brought off with at least an outward show of assurance. Quite what the audience thought is impossible to say, although they clapped like heroes at the end of it.

Without doubt though, The Wordsworth Singers has become the premier choir of Cumbria. Their collective ability and the variety of artistic range is impressive, enabling them to delight, educate and move their audience in equal measure.

Anthony Peacock

Earth's Imagined Corners

St John’s Hensingham
7 Feb 2009

With their rich sound, wide expressive range and thoughtful text presentation, the Wordsworth Singers are to be congratulated on their latest concert. In conjunction with director Edward Caswell, whose musical leadership the choir clearly respond to warmly, they presented a demanding and imaginative programme to the appreciative audience at St. John’s, Hensingham, Whitehaven.

The interval was flanked with two contrasting motets by James MacMillan. The vowel sounds the choir produced suited perfectly the atmospheric opening of Dominus dabit benignitatem, with melodic leaps arising with precision from a rich texture. After the interval, the demanding rhythms that give Factus est repente its sparkle were not always delivered with such precision, but the overall effect of this imaginative music was stunning.

The choral centrepieces of each half of the programme were two renaissance choral works from quite different traditions.  Palestrina's Stabat Mater in an arrangement by Richard Wagner (a musical partnership I wish the programme notes had been able to tell me more about), was characterised by some beautiful melodic phrasing in the inner parts. The setting of the psalm Domine exaudi orationem meam by Lassus contained some highly effective text presentation. The falling melody which accompanies the psalmist’s petition that he should not be abandoned "like those who go down to the pit" was brought out with clarity, and the insistence that his enemies should be cut off (disperdes) was genuinely insistent. Entries within the polyphonic texture were generally initiated crisply.

I wondered whether the contrasting styles between the Palestrina and the Lassus might have been better brought out by scattering the choir for the Palestrina.

The programme was topped and tailed with miniature gems from C H H Parry: his setting of Psalm 39, Lord let me know mine end; and the contracted but vast musical canvas inspired by Donne's sonnet At the round earth's imagined corners.  The choir communicated the range of expression required of them. Nowhere was this more striking than in the disturbing rhythmic urgency of Donne's list of death-inducing calamities ("war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies", etc.), contrasted immediately with rich and gentle upper voice singing on the words, "Shall behold God and never taste death's woe".

It was a treat to hear cellist Emma Ferrand perform a Bach suite in each half of the concert. She brought a clear sense of baroque style to the first and the third suites. Especially impressive was the way Ferrand led us through the richly harmonic passage in the Prelude to the third suite, and the rhythmic poise that gave the Sarabande from the same suite such depth of purpose.

Tom Parsons

 


 

The Wordsworth Singers, under their Conductor Edward Caswell, presented an exciting and imaginative concert at St John's Church, Hensingham. Framed by the last two of C H H Parry's Songs of Farewell, there was music from the 16th century to the 21st. The two Parry motets are much the most difficult of the set to pull off. They demand passion and clarity. The singers were perhaps more concerned to get safely round the technical problems and to produce a blended sound rather than projecting the composer's gloomy agony arising from the destruction and loss of the Great War. What was particularly effective, however, was the solemn, silent arrival of the choir in procession, leading straight into Lord, let me know mine end.

This was followed by Emma Ferrand playing movements from J S Bach's First Cello Suite. She has doubtless played and taught these works many, many times, but she clearly never tires of them. The music came over with a mature freshness which was spellbinding. Later in the concert, she played movements from the Third Cello Suite. Again, passion and enthusiasm radiated and filled the church.

Then came Palestrina's Stabat Mater, as arranged by Wagner. This is for double choir, with soloists for each choir. The textures were distinctly dense in places, and it only gradually became apparent to the listener how the music was structured. A clear spatial separation of the two choirs, with the soloists out in front, would have made the patterns much clearer. It was noticeable, however, that most of the soloists were able to blend readily with the choir in the tutti sections, and then switch again to their solos: not an easy feat!

On either side of the interval, we had two very new works by James MacMillan. The Singers rose to the occasion with enthusiasm, particularly in the second piece, the story of the first Whitsuntide. The audience response showed how well the choir projected this distinctly modern music.

Then came the most substantial piece of the second half: the fifth of the Penitential Psalms by Orlande de Lassus. These monumental settings were written about 1560, when it would have been the practice other than in the Sistine Chapel to vary the voicings of different verses, and use instruments in a variety of different ways. The Wordsworth Singers' performance was of the Sistine Chapel variety, with little variation of timbre and texture between the verses. As at other points in the concert, more passion, presenting the words and their meanings more vividly, would have sustained this long piece better. It has to be said that even by this stage in the concert, the Singers were able to retain their intonation. Sliding gradually flatter is a common problem for choirs singing unaccompanied music. This was not a problem at Hensingham!

All in all, a well-conceived evening, with music from a variety of periods, and major instrumental contributions from Emma Ferrand. Congratulations to all concerned.

David Jones