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Earth's Imagined Corners

St Michael's Church, Stanwix
31 January 2009

'I was glad when they said unto me...'  Let us go unto a concert given by the Wordsworth Singers on Saturday 31st January at St Michael's Church, Stanwix and heard, amongst other things beautifully performed by the choir under the sure and understanding direction of Edward Caswell, two beautifully crafted anthems by Parry from the virtually unknown hinterland of works by that sadly undervalued composer, works entirely free from the saccharine sentimentality of much sacred music of his period.

The slow, reverent interpretation of Palestrina's exquisite Stabat Mater suggested in Wagner's arrangement was impressive but gave this performance an uncharacteristic heaviness not found in swifter continental readings which point the triple rhythm of the text bringing out the bumpy cross-rhythms and elegance of the music's phrases. Perhaps one's receptivity depends upon how one likes to be harrowed!

Lassus's Domine Exaudi was superbly sung and one was swept along totally absorbed in the music's gorgeous colour and masterly construction.  Phrasing of the inside parts was excellent and well up to the usual standard of this very able choir, as was the handling of MacMillan's two atmospheric and demanding motets which rely so heavily on accuracy and effect.

Emma Ferrand’s performance of Bach's music for solo cello was gloriously warm, sensitive and totally captivating.

Brian Sammons

Blessed Cecilia

St Martin's Church, Bowness-on-Windermere
22 November 2008

Last Saturday, 22 November, was the feast of St Cecilia, known since the sixteenth century as the patron of music and musicians. So it was only fitting that the Wordsworth Singers devoted much of their concert in St Martin's Church, Bowness-on-Windermere, to works of Cecilian inspiration. The evening started off with a Mass in Honour of St Cecilia by the Lithuanian composer Kristina Vasiliauskaite, who was much involved with the choir's tour in her homeland in 2006 and maintains strong links with them. It is a simple setting of the four shorter sections of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei), sung in Latin, probably new to most of those hearing it, much appreciated.

This was followed by two pieces by the twentieth-century English composer Herbert Howells - a psalm prelude for organ and A Hymn for St Cecilia (a setting of a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams, commissioned in 1960 to mark Howells's membership of the Worshipful Company of Musicians).

Then we were treated to two delightful works for unaccompanied choir by Arnold Bax, both settings of medieval texts. I Sing of a Maiden is a fifteenth-century poem, and This Worldes Joie antedates Chaucer. The first is a relatively simple setting, the second more complex and difficult; both were splendidly sung.

After the interval we came to what I imagine was the most familiar work to the bulk of the audience - Benjamin Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia. This is a setting of words by W H Auden that Britten composed at sea on his way back from the USA in 1942, beautiful words set beautifully to music, hauntingly performed by the Singers. Britten was born on St Cecilia's Day 1913 — usually referred to as a great musical coincidence, but I prefer to think of it as the outcome of a deliberate conspiracy between Cecilia and Ben’s parents.

The programme came to a conclusion with two more works by Britten. The Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria is Britten's only piece for solo organ, composed in 1946. And in Rejoice in the Lamb Britten sets sections of the long religious poem Jubilate Agno by the eighteenth-century Christopher Smart (who at the time of writing was an inmate in an asylum). The poem was not published until 1939, when the manuscript was discovered in Suffolk. Britten's music captures Smart's sense of wonder in a hymn of praise for all creation. A difficult work wonderfully sung.

All in all, a quite challenging but highly enjoyable evening's music making. Just what we have come to expect from the Wordsworth Singers.

Leonard Scott

Morning Motets

Ambleside Parish Church
8 August 2008

O Key of David

St Oswald's Church, Grasmere
28 June 2008

On Saturday last the Wordsworth Singers in St Oswald’s Parish Church Grasmere gave the fifth concert featuring the music of J S Bach. Also included was music by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, and Heinrich Schütz born exactly one hundred years before Bach.

The programme began atmospherically with Arvo Pärt’s settings of the Seven Magnificat Antiphons. Although lacking a sympathetic acoustic the choir sang with great control and the sonority of the basses gave a richness to the work, which is resonant of the composer’s Eastern European background. Rendering the contrast between bleakness and warmth within this work was superbly done and the antiphons came to a spine tingling conclusion with the fortissimo exclamation of the seventh antiphon - O Emmanuel, our king and lawgiver with its sustained high tessitura for sopranos.

The first half of the programme ended with a sumptuous performance of Schutz’s polychoral Deutsches Magnificat. Although there was one nervous moment this did not detract from the feeling of the grandiose and the choir captured the style of this music with its full 'continental sound' brilliantly.

The major work of the whole programme was Bach's motet Jesu, meine Freude. This is the longest, most musically complex and earliest of the six motets and also probably the best known. Each of its eleven sections uses combinations of the voices in five, four and three part and a range of Baroque choral writing styles with different degrees of complexity. There was a remarkable balance of sound, beautifully projected and with clarity of individual lines and I was particularly struck by the purity of the soprano line.

For the final choral work we returned to the music of Arvo Pärt, ...which was the son of.... , a very different work from that which opened the programme, showing considerable influence of Spirituals and Barbershop and a sense of humour which is not something often associated with his music. The refined and dignified singing of the Wordsworth Singers beautifully portrayed this setting of the lengthy genealogy of Jesus in St Luke’s Gospel.

Mention has not been made so far of organist Ian Shaw who not only accompanied the Bach and Schütz but also performed solo in Bach's fifth Trio Sonata and his own piece quizzically entitled Solomon and the Gnat. The Trio Sonatas are notoriously difficult to perform with their exposed linear writing and Shaw performed with style and accuracy. His own composition is a quirky piece, with influences of Messiaen and one that deserves to be played more often.

Cumbria is very fortunate to have a choir of this standard who can perform such a wide range of music with a real sense of style. In turn the choir is fortunate to have as their director Edward Caswell whose vocal expertise is able to mould this group of singers into an ensemble which produces a quality of sound and blend that other choirs can only envy.

John Green