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Rachmaninoff Vespers

Austin Friars St Monica's School, Carlisle
20 April 2013

On Saturday evening the eloquent, lofty, clean-lined beauty of the chapel of Austin Friars St Monica's School filled with the rich sonorities of Rachmaninoff's setting of the holy Liturgy of the Easter All-Night Vigil. Musical instrumental accompaniment being forbidden in Russian Orthodoxy, the clarity and tonal accuracy of the thirty-five voices of the Wordsworth Singers needed not only to be of the very highest quality, but also to blend and move in perfect ensemble through changes in colour, texture, range and dynamic, all the while presenting the lines of Liturgy for their own sake and not for the sake of a concert performance. So spell-binding was the quality of singing – including an extraordinarily beautiful alto solo in 'Bless the Lord, O my soul' – that members of the audience were hardly mere recipients; rather, they were invited into a closer understanding of the way in which Rachmaninoff's creativity, coupled with the ancient texts and prayers of the Orthodox tradition, can offer nourishment both rich and rare. Although the musical scope and complexity of the composition make considerable demands of all the singers – not least in managing the entire text in Russian – Mark Hindley's sensitive yet unambiguous conducting was captivating for choir and audience alike. He drew out extraordinary richness in choral
breadth and volume (and, of course, serious basso depth) in, for example, the opening 'Call to Worship'; yet he also crafted delicate moments of almost unbelievable transparency in which pianissimo suspensions resolved into almost whispered beauty as choir and conductor worked absolutely as one. On Saturday we witnessed something of what the psalmist must have meant by 'the beauty of holiness' – and perhaps, also, a touch of the holiness of beauty.

Jeremy Goulding

 

Springtime

3 March 2013

 

Eton Choirbook

St Michael's Church, Stanwix, Carlisle
24 November 2012

It was as always a pleasure to attend a concert by the Wordsworth Singers. Over the years they have demonstrated their proficiency in music of every period, and in this concert they went back to some of the earliest sacred music still surviving. Though about half of the Eton Choirbook is lost there are still over 40 pieces extant, dating to before the Reformation. On the evidence of this concert they deserve more frequent airing. In the late 15th century when much of this music was written, composers seemed less bound by the conventions of later Renaissance polyphony with which many of us are more familiar. The result is an apparent personal devotion and response to the words especially notable in the first two pieces. The peace and gentleness of Walter Lambe's Nesciens Mater reflected the picture it presented of Mary nursing her baby. The setting of Ave Maria Mater Dei by William Cornysh, using only the three lower voices, was beautiful but sombre, emphasising not so much the praise of Mary as the hope that she would use her power to protect us from the destruction of sin. The rest of the music the choir performed consisted of three more extended pieces. The settings used partly the full choir and partly smaller groups of singers affording many variations in texture and allowing the Wordsworth's fine array of soloists to have a role. This was particularly the case in the last piece, the Magnificat Regale by Robert Fayrfax. Throughout the performance the singers displayed their customary attention to excellent diction and faultless intonation.

Between the vocal items we enjoyed two sets of short pieces for the Troubadour harp, beautifully played by Jean Altshuler. This is a genre of music with which I was entirely unfamiliar, and I feel it would be a pleasure to hear more. The first set were songs which had been arranged for solo harp, and I would like to hear them performed by a singer with harp accompaniment. How many people learned at school that Richard the Lionheart was a keen musician, and how few of us have been able to hear one of his compositions!

Janet Davies

Celestial Banquet

St Patrick's Church, Patterdale
29 September 2012

The Wordsworth Singers, conducted by Mark Hindley, presented an intriguing programme at Patterdale on Saturday 29th September, of choral settings of texts for the feast of Corpus Christi.

Unlike most high days in the Church's calendar, the origins of Corpus Christi ('the Body of Christ') are not lost in antiquity; in fact it was invented by papal decree in the thirteenth century, with hymns, in celebration of the doctrine of transubstantiation, written by St Thomas Aquinas; and it was settings of these hymns that we heard here. Now it might be thought that an hour and a quarter of some notoriously thorny theology by mediaeval Christendom's greatest intellect might make for rather dry fare. Not a bit of it: we were treated to a rich and varied feast.

Aquinas' celebration of the institution of the Eucharist, removed from its austere origins in Holy Week, is by turns triumphant and meditative, and the singers were in fine voice to do justice to it all, from glorious Renaissance music for double choir by Victoria, Palestrina and Hassler to the concentrated radiance of modern French settings by Messiaen and Villette. The fervency of the opening and the closing Alleluias of Morales' O sacrum convivium framed some beautifully poised quiet singing, especially from the sopranos; Bruckner's Pange lingua was accorded unusually full dynamic contrast to thrilling, almost symphonic effect. The choir's superb attention to the words was audible throughout, never more so than in Anthony Pitts' Adoro te, the only English setting (alas that there was no space or time for Finzi's Lo, the full final sacrifice); they seemed as undaunted by the exposed passages of the 15th-century style of Johannes Regis as by the dense harmonies of the late 20th-century Pierre Villette.

The choir has recorded the programme and by this showing the forthcoming CD should be a joy. "Lovely!" muttered the chap in the audience behind me at the end of Willaert's radiant, sustained O salutaris, written for St Mark's in Venice. And so it was.

Henry Howard