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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

Sing a New Song

St Mary's Church, Wigton
26 April 2008

The Wordsworth Singers, under the direction of conductor Edward Caswell, are to be congratulated upon their deft singing of a very difficult and demanding programme of music from the 14th to the 20th centuries in St Mary's Church, Wigton, on Saturday evening.

They certainly 'jumped in at the deep end' with Josquin's motet Benedicta es Caelorum and quickly settled down to give heartwarming and convincing performances of this and his very beautiful Missa Pange Lingua - performances which glowed with an inner light, rhythmic complexities seeming to present no difficulties. The forte singing of the Et Incarnatus in the Credo was novel and yet thought provoking, as was the somewhat strange and remote placing at the end of the concert, the hymn melody Pange Lingua from which the mass grew.

Their account of Bach's motet Singet dem Herrn was gloriously confident. Articulation in the convoluted and quasi instrumental lines was crisp. Stravinsky's Three Sacred Choruses were a restrained contrast, and must have taxed considerably the voices of all.

Charles Harrison's organ playing was an astonishing demonstration of sheer virtuosity and superb musicianship, his Bach playing was authoritative and masterful and he seemed to make Louis Vierne's Aubade and Naiades from the Suite Op 55 bubble out of the instrument.

This is a group of considerable cultural stature of which the county can be justly proud.

David Upton

Inspired by Song

St Cuthbert's Church, Carlisle
23 February 2008

With spring surely just around the corner, what better way to spend a Saturday evening than with The Wordsworth Singers in St Cuthbert's Church. This, the third in a series of concerts highlighting the works of J S Bach, continued the choir's tradition of presenting unusual works alongside the fairly familiar in a big programme of music from the 16th century to the present day.

Two of Bach's motets, the great Komm, Jesu, komm in eight parts, and the less often heard O Jesu Christ meins Lebens Licht formed the core of the first half of the concert, conductor Edward Caswell's assured direction drawing good, firm singing from the choir and making these into poignant and memorable performances. Remaining with the Bach theme, organist John Robinson treated the audience to a virtuosic performance of the thrilling Prelude and Fugue in G, before enticing us into another world with Cesar Franck's Choral No 2, the choice of registrations making this magnificent instrument fairly glitter.

Three beautiful and very extraordinary anthems by Henry Purcell preceded the interval, after which we heard three Ave Marias - firstly the exquisite setting by the 16th century Spaniard Victoria, then Bruckner's magnificent setting in which he seems to achieve "vastness and miniaturism at the same time", and lastly that by Hungarian Sandor Szokolay. This piece, written in 1988, with close contemporary textures and luminous sonorities amply demonstrated The Wordsworths' versatility as a choir, and received here in Carlisle tonight its UK premiere.

"Listen to the sound of harmony, this melodious musical instrument of modern skills, which plays sweetly and sings full of praise..." exhorts the 12th century manuscript which Zoltan Kodaly set to music in 1966. Laudes Organi "for organ with choir" proved to be Kodaly's last completed work, and with its imposing organ introduction and interludes this paean to the King of Instruments brought an uplifting concert to a triumphant conclusion. I look forward to the remainder of the series.

David Upton