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The Passion

The Chapel, Austin Friars St Monica's School, Carlisle
5 April 2014

Elias Canetti described Christianity as a 'religion of lament'. In Passiontide, we Christians go into lamentation overdrive: the sheer sorrow of the (temporary) death of God, for which, killed by humans, we feel not only sorrow but guilt. And our poets add on layers of drama, horror, and grief. What the Wordsworth Singers showed us last Saturday night was that the Renaissance Church did lamentation big style, and they had not given up sonority for Lent. The massive washy acoustic of Austin Friars' tall cavernous Chapel in Carlisle proved an ideal space in which to allow the Wordsworth's 33 voices to produce a full fat sound to do the season proud.

On the menu were monumental polyphonic writings for large 'a capella' choirs, produced by German, Spanish and Italian composers inspired by the vastness of St Mark's Venice, a sound world more bewildering even than Carlisle's magnificent Citadel railway station. How could any musical offering fill such a space? Oddly an answer came humbly from a single viol player. Elizabeth Dodd treated us to a set of pieces which helpfully broke up each half of the concert with the far more intimate sound of a single instrument.

The choir was able to show off the range of sonorities at its disposal with a strong opening in Hassler's Miserere: trombone-strong basses grounded full chords, coloured by firm tenors and rich altos and topped by plangent, soaring sopranos. The concluding "Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto", despite its Lenten context, displayed a gratifyingly visceral magnificence. Yes, those Christians love their grief.

And on to Palestrina, the restrained conservative whose smooth progressions and dissonance are always carefully prepared and controlled (as the Wordsworth's musical director Mark Hindley put it). Hindley's direction ensured that the lines of mediaeval chant that underlie the music were ever flowing, and wove deliciously in the echoing space of the chapel above us.

The viol music gave us popular tunes heard by the same writers and singers who would have been handed the wet-ink parts of the choral pieces in our programme. Both the tenor and bass viol (Elizabeth Dodd showed us a little of each) are played a little like a cello but have six rather than four strings, and are fretted like a guitar for better intonation. The richness comes from the bowing of the instrument: a clever player can stroke combinations of strings to produce a harmonised melody. Elizabeth Dodd led us into a world where a single viol player could hold court to a rapt audience, sending out a veritable orchestra of sound.

The flowing lines of Giovanni Croce's O triste spectaculum are in my notes, but utterly obscured in superficial memory by what followed. Carlo Gesualdo is precious to early musicians: he allows us gentle folk to imagine we are as glamorously dangerous as no doubt he was. He gained a reluctant notoriety as a butcher recluse, having killed his wife and her lover (oh, and several others) and retreated to his walled castle to evade vengeance and write exquisite but fascinatingly weird choral music. The Wordsworths obviously loved this one (O vos omnes), which to me had strange premonitions of Bruckner some 250 years later. As Gesualdo looked to his God for salvation, we glimpse a terror worthy of any Gothic thriller.

In Melchior Franck's Inspice vulnera ['Gaze on his wounds'], Mark Hindley proved his worth in keeping an energetic tempo, resisting the obvious temptation to allow richness of sound (palpable and pleasing) to deteriorate into self-indulgence.

The Guerrero motets that began the second half showed off the lapidary dignity of the basses, whose sweeping chant lines made the music sing, while the upper voices decorated their work.

Then in Victoria's Vexilla Regis we heard from both upper and lower voices in Gregorian chant verses, interspersed with polyphony leading to a ringing cantus firmus from the sopranos and a warm velvety 'Amen'.

Who would have predicted fireworks at the end? Two delightful riffs from the sopranos topped off the evening, in Anerio's Stabat Mater. Yet another huge piece that suited our lofty venue, showed off the consistency of the singers who divided self-confidently into three equally strong antiphonal choirs, and proved that lamentation, and our human longing for hope in our darkest hours, inspire the greatest art.


Immortal Bach

United Reformed Church, Cockermouth
8 February 2014

It was billed as 'an evening of radiant choral music by J S Bach and some of the many composers profoundly influenced by his genius, including Brahms, Mendelssohn, Cornelius and Nystedt', and so it was for the almost capacity audience who attended the Wordsworth Singers' concert in Cockermouth's URC Church last Saturday, 8th February.

For those of us who rate Bach's music as some of the finest ever written, particularly for its astonishing variety and technical mastery, the title of the event, "Immortal Bach" was immediately an exciting and intriguing prospect. Nor were we disappointed. The choir and their guest pianist, Lynda Cochrane, excelled and thrilled us throughout the concert.

The venue, with its low, almost flat, ceiling - so unlike most churches and chapels in the county with their high pointed naves, - could have been a difficult location for this 30-strong choir, perhaps tending to overwhelm the audience with sound during the climaxes. However, under Mark Hindley's expert direction, the dynamic range was perfect for the setting – sitting on the back row I heard every word in the quiet passages, including several soloists from within the choir, while the loudest sections were full-bodied, perfectly filling the church with rich vocal sounds.

Bach's Singet dem Herrn provided a thrilling start to the evening's music making: it was performed confidently, with great vigour in the first and third sections, which contrasted nicely with the more reflective middle section. Immediately after this, Busoni's transcription for piano of Bach's organ Chorale Prelude Nun komm der Heiden Heiland was played with great colour and excellent phrasing by Lynda Cochrane. She then followed this with the second Menuet by Edward MacDowell, based on one of JSB's short pieces in the Anna Magdalena Notebook, with great poise and delicacy.

The choir returned to sing Peter Cornelius' popular The Three Kings, in which the soloist's excellent bass voice rose beautifully above the choir's chorale accompaniment. There followed Heinrich Kaminski's beautiful Vergiss mein nicht from his set of six chorale settings, in which the chorale melody was probably written by Bach himself – here the choir relished the late Romantic harmonies to the full, in a highly polished performance.

The most unusual work of the evening was Immortal Bach (the title piece) by 20th Century Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt. Although starting simply with the first few bars of Bach's chorale melody, the choir then separated into several sub-choirs, singing the music at different tempi, which produced some astonishingly dissonant harmonies, which would tax the intonation of any group of singers. However, the Wordsworth Singers held their nerve (and pitch) triumphantly!

The second half of the concert started with Brahms' motet Warum ist das licht gegeben, an extended work based on texts from the Biblical books of Job and Lamentations, as well as the letter of James. It was sung with great poignancy – the phrasing was beautifully executed throughout. This was followed by two more of MacDowell's delightful Menuets, which provided some lighter relief, after Brahms' intensity, as well as George Shearing's Get off my Bach – this was certainly modern jazz, but included a large number of musical ideas derived from Bach.

Mendelssohn's Warum toben die Heiden is a fairly lengthy setting of part of Psalm 2, whose structure owes much to Bach, but the harmonies are distinctively those of Mendelssohn, who was largely responsible for the revival of interest in Bach's music in the early 19th Century. This was a particularly moving performance, with two 4-part choirs matching perfectly, plus solo sections, whose voices blended beautifully with the overall ensemble.

The concert ended with Glenn Gould's hilarious So you want to write a Fugue? – in many ways a parody of a Bach Fugue, full of characteristic Bach-type figures and counterpoint, together with very amusing words, which the choir evidently enjoyed singing immensely and which brought an excellent concert to a very enjoyable conclusion. Well done, all!


Take him, earth

St John's Church, Keswick
23 November 2013

The Wordsworth Singers, a leading Cumbrian chamber choir, directed by Mark Hindley with Hugh Davies at the organ, presented a concert of music by Herbert Howells, Benjamin Britten and others to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of John F Kennedy and to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Britten.

The concert began with Howells' motet, Take him, earth, for cherishing, a work commissioned for the 1964 Kennedy official memorial service. This deeply felt piece, full of love and pain, reflects Howells' own experience of the loss of his son Michael at the age of 9 as well as the public grief in 1963 at the death of the young President. The opening line is a single unison line for men's voices, and as such is very exposed. As the very first item in the concert, this line came over as slightly uncertain, but the choir then picked up the mood and gave this wonderful piece a confident and moving performance.

We moved on to Deus in adjutorium meum, a setting of Psalm 70, one of the many early works of Britten which are being re-discovered in this centenary year. It is full of youthful experiments, and falls into several sections, some using the full choir, some using separate parts. The choir very successfully navigated the joins between these sections, always danger-points, observing all of Britten's meticulous markings to great effect.

Next, Hugh Davies played on the Arthur Harrison organ which St John's, Keswick, is fortunate to have. Howells' Psalm Preludes, rather like the Britten we had just heard, fall into a number of sections, and can easily become rambling and incoherent. Hugh Davies magnificently avoided these traps, giving a convincing and integrated performance of Psalm Prelude No 1 at this point in the evening, and No 2 later on.

By way, perhaps, of light relief, Hugh Davies then played Percy Whitlock's Folk Tune. Whitlock was active in the south of England in the inter-war years, both in church and secular positions. He was renowned as Bournemouth's Civic Organist. Programmed to take the emotional temperature down a little, perhaps, but nonetheless well-played.

The Wordsworth Singers then gave us Howells' Requiem, their performance dedicated to the memory of Keswick-based artist and musician Philip MacLeod Coupe, who had recently died. This piece is much less-known than the Hymnus Paradisi, as it was only published in 1980, though apparently work had begun on it as early as 1932. It uses some parts of the conventional Requiem Mass, but also other English texts and psalms, creating a sense of narrative and movement, from sickness, through death and on to paradise. This is music which is not necessarily easy to sing, but which is easily accessible, which falls into various short sections, and featuring Howells' very characteristic lines of rhythm, melody and harmony so beloved of the world of cathedral music, but too seldom heard outside those precincts. Once again, the choir was able to weld the performance into a seamless whole: very satisfying. This, along with other parts of the concert, featured several solo singers from among the choir. All were clearly well-prepared and their lines emerged from the choral sections and sank back into the whole very successfully.

After the interval, we heard Howells' A Hymn for St Cecilia. St Cecilia is honoured as the patron saint of music, and her feast-day is November 22nd, a day before this concert. The text is by Ursula Vaughan Williams. The organ accompaniment and the full-throated choral beginning gave a very confident start to the second half of the concert. I couldn't help thinking that in programming terms, it would have been better to begin the whole concert with this piece, and put Take him, earth at this point, or even at the very end. Also, perhaps because of the organ accompaniment and perhaps because this music is technically rather simpler than some that we had heard so far, the Wordsworth Singers were able to communicate with the audience in the way that they usually do, but which was less evident in the first half.

Next we had a setting by Howells of I love all beauteous things, a short poem by Robert Bridges. This was written for a festival at St Albans Abbey in 1977. It rejoices in the creation of works for the glory of God: 'I too will something make/and joy in the making!' Confidently performed and well worth adding to the repertoire!

After that we had the second of the Psalm Preludes followed by Fidelis for organ, by Whitlock. As in the first half of the concert, this was immensely satisfying Howells, followed by a little relaxation with Whitlock.

The choir concluded the concert with two pieces for St Cecilia: Bernard Rose's Feast Song for St Cecilia, and Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia. The first was not a piece known to me. It received a confident and satisfying performance, and, like I love all beauteous things, is well worth adding to the repertoire.

With the Britten, we were clearly on ground familiar to many of the choir. It is not without its well known traps and problem links. These were negotiated with great aplomb, except perhaps for a rather hasty move into the third movement. This might have been because the choir was so delighted with the second movement. That one they executed with a nimbleness and speed rarely achieved: this member of the audience found it quite thrilling to see all the technical problems so effortlessly brushed aside. Throughout this piece, as in the rest of the concert, the various solo lines, sung from within the choir, were exemplary.


Sacred & Profane

St Bee's Priory, near Whitehaven
13 July 2013

Having just returned from the York Early Music festival I was only too glad to get a top up from the Wordsworth Singers at St Bees Priory. In spite of Clément Janequin's prolific output his name doesn't appear as often as you would expect on programmes so a double dose in this performance was very welcome. Janequin was known for the popularity of his music in his own day and the first piece, Cries of Paris, launched us full-throated into the Paris streets with its bustle and activity with male and female voices playing off each other.

The words to the second piece Sweet Hawthorn Green describing the many different types of creatures living on it were so absorbing that the singing became a background to my own musings and I almost forgot to listen, a suitable experience for musical entertainment though. This composer is known for his mimicking of birds and animals and the Song of the Lark captured the chattering and scolding of the Lark rather well. Once again the words were fascinating, if a bit off the wall. The more conventional words of The Nightingale were carried by the soaring sopranos but the lower registers which are not given much prominence in the score could have done with a bit more synchronisation to create the repetitive "words" of the Nightingale.

Jehan Alain was the modern composer (1911-1940) of the organ piece played by the Wordsworth Singers' director Mark Hindley erroneously believed to be based on a theme by Janequin. I have to admit a fault here and that is I find little organ music that is engaging however skilfully performed. There were some pleasurable moments in the second movement and in the last few bars where the upper registers had a bell-like clarity. The programme continued with more Janequin sounds with The Song of the Birds and The War. The former piece lacked the cohesion one normally expects from the Wordsworth Singers but it all came together with the lovely last verse on the Cuckoo. The War again took some time to come together and the plosives could have been stronger but when it did it was worth the wait and the final verse on Victory was indeed.

You can't beat a good Kyrie to draw you into a Mass and so it was after the interval with the Missa de la Batalla Escoutez by Francisco Guerrero. There is no doubt that the religious authorities of the time would have thought of this luscious introduction as "iffy" for the sopranos carried us off leaving us unconcerned by the meaning of the words. The Gloria climbed eventually with the upper registers vying with the rich depth of the lower voices. The Mass finished as always with the Agnus Dei with those lucky sopranos soaring away above the pillow of the tenors and basses all coming together with a delightful finish.

I should add a compliment on the programme notes - quite the best I've read for a long time.

Alan Alexander