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.
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.