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Across the German Ocean

Lanercost Priory
3 June 2003

The Wordsworth Singers lived up to their reputation for imaginative programming in last Saturday's concert which explored the cultural exchange of ideas across the North Sea in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Most pieces were by German composers, and the four works by Englishmen bore all the hallmarks of Teutonic influence. A direct line of descent can be traced from Jacob Handl, represented by an eight part Pater Noster, to EW Naylor, whose Vox Dicentis uses the earlier master's technique of contrasting upper and lower voice groups.

This dramatic motet received a full-blooded performance from the 26-strong choir, including accomplished solos from Georgina Harland and Ian Wright.

In between we explored the complex vocal writing of J S Bach, whose eight part Singet dem Herrn was performed with a stylistic awareness that more than made up for any lack of clarity in some of the women's lines.

The German early-romantic pieces elicited some of the finest singing of the evening. Under Hugh Davies's economical direction the choir produced a polished sound in Bruch's richly textured Music's Sweet Voice and a lovely warmth of tone in the sparser writing of Brahms's Geistliches Lied. Rheinberger's Abendlied was particularly expressive. Of the two Stanford works Coelis ascendit came off particularly well, with a strong sense of rhythm and much attention to detail, whereas Wood's Hail, Gladdening Light seemed disappointingly sluggish. The concluding item, Strauss's Der Abend was a veritable tour de force. The advanced harmonic language and complex 16-part texture of this remarkable work makes it the ultimate challenge for a choir, yet this performance succeeded admirably in conveying the imagery behind the text. Three varied organ solos beautifully played by John Morris gave the choir some respite and the audience additional pleasure.


St John Passion

Carlisle Cathedral
13 April 2003

Disaster threatened this performance when tonsilitis struck principal tenor Martin Hindmarsh. But at 24 hours' notice, Glyndebourne-trained Stephen Brown stepped in, having sung Bach's St Matthew Passion in Windsor, slept for three hours and travelled up to Carlisle via Brighton.

No wonder his ovation was of special warmth: it was merited on musical as well as personal grounds. If his account of Peter's remorse and the scourging of Jesus were deeply affecting, these were but two instances from a wonderful interpretation of the Evangelist's role.

All who contributed to this magnificent performance deserve credit: conductor David Gibbs must have worked tirelessly. His cathedral colleagues also played a full part, with Jeremy Suter at the chamber organ, Darren Williams and Anthony Peacock as counter-tenor and tenor soloists, Allan Smith and Michael Deakin as Peter and Pilate, not to mention the lay-clerks and choristers who joined the Wordsworth Singers and members of the Abbey Singers in the splendid choir.

Paul im Thurn, who sang the part of Jesus, is also associated with the cathedral choir, as is Michael Hancock, principal bass soloist. Fiona Weakley, Geoff Hughes and Charles Hattrell were effective in the minor roles.

From Paris came soprano Emily Elias. Her radiant voice, soaring effortlessly over the orchestra, made each aria a thing of beauty.

Before the performance Canon Rex Chapman set the music in the context of the Passion story, noting how St John relates the tragedy to the glory. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in the aria It is finished. Jeanette Summers played the cello obbligato with a unforced eloquence that led naturally to the Easter fanfares, enunciated with vivacity by Darren Williams.

The playing of the Northern Chamber Orchestra was a joy throughout and an inspiring support for the solo singers. Anthony Peacock combined expressiveness with commendable musicianship in the notoriously demanding Erwage aria. In contrasting mood was Michael Hancock's contemplative delivery of the arioso that precedes it.

Paul im Thurn's voice is a fine one. He brought authority to the Christus part, not wholly the serenity that some give to it. But there was much to admire, as indeed with all the soloists from this area who took part.

The quality of the choir was sustained virtually throughout. Any quibbles - a shaky start here, or more staccato there - must pale in the face of the overall achievement. At the beginning of Holy Week this was a deeply rewarding experience for listeners and performers alike.

Andrew Seivewright

Midwinter Spring

St Cuthbert's Church, Carlisle 
12 January 2003

This was a concert of three halves, as you might say. Some of the time we were in France, with Saint-Saëns’ Deux choeurs (Opus 68, 1882) and Fauré's Madrigal (1883), and Debussy's setting of three medieval poems Trois chansons de Charles d'Orléans.

These were straightforward, almost robust pieces about things to enjoy and people to love, and the winter to hate - and the choir relished them.

Some of the time we were still in France, with two ravishing piano duets. Michael Hancock and Charles Harrison, the founders of the Wordsworth Singers, played Debussy's Petite suite, and Ravel's Ma mère l'oye (Mother Goose).

But some of the time we ventured into Eden. Not perhaps our Eden, even though the concert was given in Penrith and Carlisle. Rather Eden, a surreal entrance to Paradise. First, we had Edwin Muir's poem, One foot in Eden, set to music by Nicholas Maw. It speaks of fields planted with crops of love and hate, charity and sin, grief - and then of strange blessings falling from these beclouded skies.

The weather was wintry, and this concert a much needed blessing. Cecilia herself, whose Hymn (words by Auden, set to music by Britten) we heard, did come down and inspire.

Thank you to the Wordsworth Singers for spring in midwinter.


Midwinter Spring

Penrith Methodist Church 
11 January 2003

The chill of winter outside Penrith Methodist Church was not reflected inside. Not only was the church warm, but the warmth of the performance by the Wordsworth Singers assured the audience that spring was just round the corner.

The Wordsworth Singers, formed in 1997, pride themselves on imaginative programme building, and this concert, called Midwinter Spring, was a perfect example of this. Their programme was a combination of French songs by Saint-Saens, Faure and Debussy, and Song Cycles by English composers Benjamin Britten and Nicholas Maw. The French aspect was reflected again in piano duets by Debussy and Ravel.

The opening two songs by Saint-Saens, Opus 68, were most atmospheric and the first one, Calme des Nuits, was particularly enchanting. The Singers certainly created a feeling of calm with fine legato singing.

As a complete contrast, One Foot in Eden, composed in 1994 by Nicholas Maw, used interesting harmonies not familiar to many listeners. A quartet of soloists from the Singers and the rest of the choir sang well the complexities of harmony and structure and created a feeling of unrest and tension in the middle section. During the singing of this work one could reflect on our Eden Valley before, during and after the foot and mouth crisis.

Britten wrote the Hymn to St Cecilia (the patron saint of music) in 1942. It consists of three contrasting sections, each ending with a chorus Blessed Cecilia. The third section included solo voices from the Singers. All sang with a pure tone and clear words, something that was excellent in all the choral items throughout the programme. The Singers' principal musical director Michael Hancock accompanied most sensitively the Faure Madrigal, a very pleasing piece of music.

Each half of the concert contained piano duets played beautifully by Michael Hancock and Charles Harrison. Petite Suite, by Debussy, and Ma Mere d'Oi, by Ravel, were complementary in style and were composed by the two foremost Impressionist composers. These duets not only showed the skill and musicianship of the performers, but also the range and colour of Penrith Music Club's Steinway piano.

The concert concluded with Trois Chansons de Charles d'Orleans, by Debussy. Again this included solo parts from the choir. As a bonus for the audience, the evening closed with a light-hearted encore Calico Pie (words by Edward Lear), by Richard Rodney Bennett.

With the small numbers in this excellent chamber choir, each singer is vitally important to the whole. The fact that many singers sang solo parts during this one concert shows the high quality of all members. They were a credit to Michael Hancock, while Charles Harrison, who conducted the performance, showed that his skill in conducting equals that of his organ playing.

All who made the effort to attend this excellent concert on a cold winter's evening were rewarded with a delightful programme of singing and playing of the highest quality.