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.
DAVID G JONES