User Menu

Songs of Farewell

St Barnabas' Church, Carlisle
St Lawrence's Church, Morland nr Penrith
4, 5 March 2017

This was the first concert I have attended of the Wordsworth Singers as a member of the audience. I was not disappointed. The sense of ensemble in the choir and the sensitivity of the performance were impressive and we were treated to an afternoon of delightful music appropriate for the more reflective season of Lent.

The theme and title of the concert, ‘Songs of Farewell’, ran through all the choral pieces and even the first set of piano pieces. It began with Brahms Fünf Gesänge Op104 which was performed with the intensity required for this work. The choir’s diction was faultless and there were some beautifully shaped phrases in the quieter movements which were quietly passionate while being magnificently controlled. In the more lively movements the Wordsworth Singers provided a great sense of cohesive attack and vigour.

The ‘Songs of Farewell’ theme continued with the first set of three piano pieces from Klavierstücke Op118 by Brahms. They were played by Leah Nicholson, a very talented young pianist from the northern reaches of Cumbria, currently studying at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. She was very warmly received by the audience. Leah played with a touching sensitivity while at the same time being able to provide a sense of power when the music demanded it.

Jonathan Dove’s Into thy Hands was refreshingly different to the other works. Particularly of note was the light touch given to the ostinato bass towards the end of the piece which provided a beautiful foundation for other parts to bring the piece to a gentle end. The first half closed with the rich harmonies of the double choir in Bring us, O Lord God by William Harris.

After the interval we enjoyed Parry’s Songs of Farewell; sublime music designed to carry the listener to another place. After four of the six songs we enjoyed another piano interlude again by Brahms; his Rhapsody Op79, No 1, again played by Leah with a great intensity and passion.

Parry’s final two songs demand a great deal of the singers, which they readily gave. At the end of the last, there was an intense silence before the applause began - a reflection perhaps of a reluctance to return from the sublime place to which all the performers had taken us in an afternoon of wonderful music.

Then, to paraphrase the final words of Parry’s last song we all ‘went hence and were no more seen’.

NICK ASH

O Miracle of Love

Austin Friars School, Carlisle
St George's Church, Kendal
19, 20 November 2016

The many loyal followers of the Wordsworth Singers have come to expect programmes full of interest and innovative ideas, and once again they were not disappointed.  The audience which left the concert in Austin Friars' School last Saturday had been treated to a delightful evening of interesting and beautiful music.

The title of the concert, 'Miracle of Love', was taken from the words of one of the items in the second half of the programme, a set of songs in the style of madrigals by the modern American composer Morten Lauridsen.  They followed a setting of the mass, Missa 'In illo tempore'  by one of the greatest madrigal composers of all time, Monteverdi.  The musical themes of the mass were drawn from a motet In illo tempore loquente Jesu by an earlier composer, Nicolas Gombert.  Both of these composers set their texts expertly and with great beauty, with Monteverdi in particular proving a feast of varying textures and some quite startling key changes to reflect the changing themes of the mass.  

The madrigal-like Fire Songs by Lauridsen were extremely exciting to listen to.  He is a master of the use of dissonance and discord without ever descending into harshness.  His settings of these Italian Renaissance poems aptly reflected their theme, which portrayed the writers as being overwhelmed by passion which seemed to bring them much more pain than pleasure.  The fire of love did not light them up with joy but burnt them in agony and left them ultimately in despair.  Possibly we should look back at the words of the brief opening motet and conclude that only reliance on the word of God brings true blessing and lasting happiness.  

Between the songs we were treated to some Renaissance music for lute, played by Eric Thomas.  The pieces, some familiar and some much less so, were written as if meant to be sung and so felt integral to the programme, while providing a gentle contrast with the firiness of Lauridsen's songs.  

The only small disappointment was that the Wordsworth Singers had suffered some last minute illnesses which had reduced their numbers, causing an occasional imbalance between the parts.  They dealt expertly with this problem and it could not detract from the overall enjoyment gained from such an intelligently constructed and performed programme.  

JANET DAVIES

The Wordsworth Singers’ concert entitled O Miracle of Love was pure delight. From a chilly November evening outside, the audience was transported into the warmth and light of St George’s Church in Kendal, as darkness fell.  

The slightly depleted choir was nonetheless still well balanced and their positioning around the chancel step meant that their excellent vocal sound was clearly projected into the generous acoustic of the nave.  

The interesting and well balanced programme opened with the motet In illo tempore loquente Jesu by Nicolas Gombert, dating from 1539. From the beginning, the choir sang the beautifully woven polyphonic lines clearly and with suitably sympathetic treatment of the words taken from St Luke’s Gospel.  

The second work, the Mass setting In illo tempore by Claudio Monteverdi, was much more substantial, the performance time being about four times that of Gombert’s motet. Written about seventy years later, this setting of the Mass uses no less than ten of Gombert’s themes and is presented with a lighter balance of voices (more upper voice parts than lower), giving a different texture to the music. It is full of interesting and sometimes unexpected harmonies and the five sections were appropriately paced to allow both the emotions and words to come across clearly.  

After the interval, the audience were, in complete contrast, treated to the American composer Morten Lauridsen’s Madrigali: Six ‘Fire Songs’, dating from 1987. These compositions combine Italian Renaissance poetry with strikingly modern harmonies, using carefully constructed dissonant chords right from the opening ‘Fire-Chord’. Each of the six settings contained interesting and varied twists and turns of melodies and harmonies, ranging from the light and springy Amor, io sento to the anguished Io piango. The choir coped admirably with the many challenges of these varied pieces.  

The madrigals were cleverly divided into three pairs with, by complete contrast, two groups of three pieces played by the distinguished lutenist, Eric Thomas. These works provided gentle interludes of great tranquillity between the fiery madrigals. Three sublime compositions (Tochata and two Fantasias) by Francesco da Milano were in contrapuntal style, somewhat similar in character to the vocal works heard earlier in the concert. The second set, The Frogg Galliard by John Dowland, a Scottish song (Anon) and a Fantasia by Gregorio Huet presented us with a variety of idiomatic lute writing, played with exquisite beauty by the guest soloist.  

Overall, we were presented with two hours of sublime music, extremely ably directed by Mark Hindley.  

MIKE TOWN

160702earthskyBetween Earth and Sky

Lanercost Priory, Brampton
2 July 2016

 

From the audience:

"Thank you. What a joy of a concert. A complete revelation to me - especially the [Bernstein] Missa Brevis."

"The concert was fabulous, you are all so talented! I particularly loved the Hebrew love songs [Whitacre]."

"...fabulous concert... Thanks again for an inspirational evening."

"[We] greatly enjoyed your super concert this evening. Well done, Wordsworths!"

"Congratulations Wordsworth Singers! What an absolutely lovely programme and marvellous sound in that wonderful venue. Many thanks to everyone."

From our Hebrew language coach: "What a performance, absolutely wonderful,... thank you again for giving me the opportunity to give just a little bit of my knowledge to the choir, though you were already very good, what a performance!"

"The singing was superb, best I've ever heard from this choir. Terrific!"

"The concert was fabulous, you are all so talented! I particularly loved the Hebrew love songs [Whitacre]."

Light of Flanders

St Michael's Church, Dalston, near Carlisle
Holy Trinity and St George's RC Church, Kendal
23 & 24 April 2016

A small but enthusiastic audience greeted the Wordsworth Singers for a concert in Holy Trinity & St George’s Catholic Church, Kendal on Sunday afternoon 24 April. The concert was entitled ‘Light of Flanders’ with repertoire drawn from the period c.1400 to 1600 when an important group of northern European composers exerted a huge influence on the development of Renaissance polyphony. To present a programme of such a specialised nature is a huge challenge artistically; moreover, this was not the kind of programme guaranteed to pull in the crowds so the Wordsworth Singers must be congratulated on their enterprise as well as their performance.

This fine award-winning choir (Cumbria Life Culture Award 2015, ‘Choir of the Year’) draws its membership mainly from north Cumbria and makes infrequent visits to the south of the county. The choir’s conductor, Mark Hindley, is a professional musician with a well-established reputation for his work as an organist and choir trainer. His excellent, informative and scholarly notes in the beautifully produced programme helped to place this largely unfamiliar repertoire in perspective.

The choir makes a very robust sound. An hour and a half of unaccompanied singing is a challenge to any choir but the Wordsworth Singers rose to this. They are fortunate in having many voices of good quality to draw upon to form smaller units within the main body when required and there were some lovely moments when these smaller units were used to give contrasts of colour and texture.

It was a brave gesture to open the concert with Guillaume Dufay’s motet Nuper rosarum flores. This work is rhythmically very intricate – the individual parts moving at different speeds – and is usually regarded as the preserve of professional ensembles; and yet here was an amateur group giving a convincing performance of one of the composer’s most celebrated works.

Similar rhythmical complexities are encountered in Johannes Ockeghem’s Intemerata Dei Mater which followed and again the singers succeeded in pursuing their individual lines without any outward sign of strain.

Renaissance polyphony sets a challenge for singers: they need to stay in tune, of course, and, at the same time, be able to sustain and shape long melodic lines smoothly, maintaining pure vowel sounds. All this, the choir did well.  However, the balance between the various parts was not always quite so successful. Numerically, the sopranos and basses far outweighed the altos and tenors and there were times when the melodic lines of the inner parts were obscured by the very strong soprano line. Perhaps the resonant church acoustic – which is wonderful for this repertoire – may have been partly responsible for this. However, it was a joy to hear this marvellous music performed with such expertise in Kendal.

CLIVE WALKLEY

Germany Renaissance & Romance

Crosthwaite Church, Keswick
28 February 2016

Concerts at Crosthwaite 2016 got off to a resounding start on Sunday evening with a concert by the Wordsworth Singers under the inspiring leadership of their conductor Mark Hindley.  It was an unusual programme, including works by German composers of the 16th and 19th centuries.  The concert was well supported by a large and enthusiastic audience.

The outstanding work was the Mass in E flat for double choir by Josef Rheinberger. Although his music is not widely known today, he was an influential figure both as a composer and teacher in Munich, and his organ sonatas have remained in the repertoire. In this fine Mass setting the two four-part choirs often sing answering phrases antiphonally, and there is much beautiful counterpoint interweaving throughout the texture. The Wordsworth Singers brought out these features most effectively, with a wide range of warm expression.

Three hundred years earlier the leading Flemish composer Orlande de Lassus was also appointed to the court at Munich, where he became one of the most prolific composers of his day, alongside Palestrina in Italy and Byrd in England, with whom his work is often compared. His set of motets entitled Prophetiae Sibyllarum (Prophecies of the Sibyls) exemplifies his polyphonic style although some of the harmony is rather more daring than usual. It was an enterprising choice and there were many good features, including choral blend and balance, but in some quieter and more chromatic passages the pitch was not always consistent.

The best known of the three featured composers was Mendelssohn, whose Six Motets for the Church’s year were written for Berlin Cathedral. There is an uplifting optimism in the Christmas motet Rejoice, ye people of the earth which is contrasted with the more reflective style of the Passiontide motet Lord, remember not our wrongdoings, where the words were given a more personal impact by a solo quartet consisting of Julie Leavett, Pippa Mayfield, Pete Bowyer and Simon Mortimer.

The award-winning Wordsworth Singers have further concerts in the pipeline, of which details may be found on their website, www.wordsworthsingers.org.uk. The next concert at Crosthwaite Church, Keswick, will be an organ recital given by John Kitchen, Organist of Edinburgh University, on Monday 18th April at 6.00 p.m.

IAN HARE

 

Sweetness Magnifical

St James Church, Whitehaven
28 November 2015

On a truly filthy November night, fifty (at least) of us braved an unheated church at the top of a windy hill in Whitehaven to hear what is without doubt the finest body of voices in the region perform at the top of their game.

The choir began with Finzi’s anguished, utterly sincere and personal Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice, which was given the pace and breadth to reveal the tragedy at the heart of this work. Aquinas’ hymns are in the tradition of praise, but Finzi, not a religious man, sees beyond them to the ultimate human tragedy of death and sacrifice, a mood that director Mark Hindley and the choir understood and communicated intelligently, respectfully and without sentimentality. The final “Amen” is among the most beautiful settings ever of this over-used word, transcendental in its beauty, and brought reverently to a conclusion with great care and vocal control.

After Ernest MacMillan’s entertaining and virtuosic Cortège Académique, superbly played by Simon Niemiński on the three-manual Norman and Beard organ, the choir gave us Walton’s The Twelve. 

Walton can suffer (sometimes justly) from accusations of insincerity, so great was his facility and so obvious his mastery of craft, but this piece is redeemed by Auden’s searingly honest and at times uncomfortably graphic libretto; and when it can find one, a technically accomplished performance, which this was. Having been present at the rehearsals, I know well how hard this piece is to put together, and what a great deal of private practice has to be done to lift these notes off the page. This was a terrific performance, full of energy, commitment, clarity and fidelity to the text. 

These composers were rich men of little or idiosyncratic faith writing religious music for an agnostic audience perturbed by progress and war. Bax, by virtue of his great wealth, had the least motivation of them all to practice intellectual rigour, and it showed. In Mater Ora Filium however, constrained by the exigencies of the Latin text, with its imaginative interpolation of English verse, his creativity shone out. The complex polyphonic structure was meticulously, and beautifully, brought to life. Every detail of this challenging work was made clear and comprehensible by the unaccompanied double choir in the warm, if at times unforgiving, acoustic of Carlisle Spedding’s elegant interior (Pevsner called it “the finest Georgian church interior in the country”).

Another virtuosic interlude from Simon Niemiński, Hollins’ A Song of Sunshine, preceded the final work, Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, a piece as well known as The Messiah in the choral repertoire, and as likely to suffer formulaic, indifferent performance. Not so in this characterful interpretation, which took great care to illuminate Smart’s religious ravings by means of a careful and respectful fidelity to the text, never however losing sight of Britten’s abundant energy, playfulness, and willingness to take the tragic ostinato to its painful conclusion, for example in “for I am in twelve hardships”. The choir sang clear as a siren in Britten’s heartfelt message of encouragement through the iron curtain to his friend Shostakovich, underscoring “for I am under the same accusation with my Saviour” with Shostakovich’s own initials.

Simon Niemiński accompanied at all times with sensitivity and grace, particularly in the choice of registrations, and special mention must go to all the soloists throughout the evening, in particular Fiona Weakley’s beautifully judged and resonant alto solo, “O Lord, my God” in The Twelve. Mark Hindley rehearsed and conducted the choir with intelligence, warmth and insight, and his clarity in direction was a joy to watch.

There was a pause of true appreciation before warm applause, and we came out onto the rain-lashed, gale-blown streets, warmed now and for days to come by the memory of the Wordsworths’ artistry and generosity.

NICK BUTTERS