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Echoes of Nature

United Reformed Church, Cockermouth
8 October 2011

The United Reformed Church, Cockermouth, echoed to bucolic birdsong, babbling brooks, undulating seas and crepuscular landscapes, in the Wordsworth Singers' first concert of the season. "Echoes of Nature" was a fitting title for what was a very daring and thought-provoking programme.

The evening's entertainment focused on the upper voices of the choir, and as the backbone to the programming here, were the excellent yet unusual Hegyi Éjszakák (Mountain Nights) by Kodály. These five wordless songs were performed wonderfully, despite difficult intervals and entries.

Three other modern composers were also featured (this time with the gentlemen of the choir intow); Gabriel Jackson, Eric Whitacre and Javier Busto. The first two of these composers really did paint vivid pictures, yet it is one thing to be able to produce such works of, yes, beauty, and another to be able to sing what the composer demands. The choir did both in executing this tremendously difficult music and portraying it so assuredly. The piece by Busto Sagastipean was a tour de force; a foot stamping folk dance from the Basque Country; the choir revelled in its colourful intensity as did the audience. At the end, the piece simply faded away in one of the most controlled diminuendos I think I've ever heard!

Of the other music performed were some rare treats: Sur la mer (d'Indy), Le Ruisseau (Fauré) and Les nymphes des bois (Delibes) all of which were superbly performed. The range of dynamics in these pieces was very wide, the performers swelling from pianissimo to fortissimo in one short phrase. However, in some of the louder passages, a less confined acoustic would have been more suitable. The only piece that seemed a little out of keeping was perhaps Schubert's Gott in der Natur. It was not performed quite as confidently as much of the other music, and at a couple of points it felt a little under-rehearsed.

Conductor, Mark Hindley, has a wealth of experience as regards choral conducting. He obviously has a great rapport with the choir and is able to draw from them the very best singing and understanding of the score. The choir were indeed fixed on his every gesture; every nuance indicating entry, breath control, phrasing and dynamics was noticed and acted upon, making the concert a joy to watch as well as listen to.

Sam Hutchings provided the accompaniment for several of the pieces. Being an accompanist is an art. Sam's sensitive skill at the keyboard was a delight, gently underplaying his part enabling the choir to shine through. He also provided two interludes, in the form of solo piano pieces (Schubert and Liszt). Here, I feel he could have projected the music more or had a little more presence on stage musically. However, the pieces were very well played, especially the phrasing during the Schubert.

This really was a first class concert. It is a pity and a real worry that there weren't more people in the audience to relish the fine music-making and vibrant programming. If we stand idly by, and do not lend our support to such musical groups, they will cease to exist. Well done Wordsworth Singers, the applause said it all, we wanted more!

Philip Wood

Restoration

St Barnabas Church, Carlisle
30 July 2011

The Wordsworth Singers, under their conductor Mark Hindley and with Tim Ravalde on the organ, gave a very enterprising and interesting concert of English music from the Restoration period – 1660 onwards.

They began, appropriately enough, with an anthem written for the coronation of Charles II – Zadok the Priest by Henry Lawes. This suffered somewhat in comparison with Handel's great masterpiece, written some 70 years later, but it was nevertheless an exuberant beginning to the concert.

Two anthems by John Blow were interesting, as he was the teacher of Henry Purcell, whom he both preceded and followed as organist of Westminster Abbey. William Boyce was represented, not only by two anthems, including the popular O where shall wisdom be found?, but also by two sonatas for violins, cello and harpsichord, expertly played by Ed Cross, Ian Wright (violins) and Ed Pendrous (cello), with Mark Hindley (harpsichord).

The climax of the evening for me, however were the three anthems by Henry Purcell, culminating in Jehovah, quam multi sunt hostes mei - this last surely one of the greatest anthems ever written by an Englishman.

Finally, I would like to congratulate the choir on their excellent ensemble, also many beautifully sung solos, and last, but not least, the detailed and skilful preparation and direction of the conductor Mark Hindley.

David Sutton

Light Eternal Yonder

St John's Church, Keswick
28 May 2011

The Wordsworth Singers'  concert entitled "Light eternal yonder" given in St. John's Church Keswick on Saturday May 28th certainly gave us the prospect of an afterlife full of beauty. Mark Hindley, the choir’s musical director, is not someone to hold back from making demands on his singers and giving them challenging works to perform.  It was appropriate to begin with an extended work by the Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria, the 400th anniversary of whose death we celebrate this year. This is an almost seamless work lasting just over 30 minutes. One was immediately struck by the excellent sense of ensemble and the exquisite blend of this well balanced choir. Singers were not placed in vocal blocks of parts but disparately which means they have to listen more and not rely on their neighbour to support their line. Only the very best choirs can withstand this formation and it was very effective.

Contrasting with the almost homogenous sound of the Victoria was Take him earth for cherishing by Herbert Howells, written in 1964 for the memorial service to John F Kennedy in Washington. This is almost a test piece for choirs with every bar offering problems of balance and demanding great attention to subtle nuances. The choir sounded less at home with the style of this composer and there were some problems in the harmony and tonal shifts. Stylistically the performance felt slightly hurried and it lacked the contrasts of intensity and contemplation which the work requires.

John Tavener is probably best known for his setting of the carol The Lamb and Song for Athene sung at Princess Diana's funeral.  The Funeral Ikos is a serene work where a verse in unison is contrasted with a simple choral setting of the words 'Alleluia'. The choir's smooth vocal line with every word given clarity was superb and there was sonority in the sound mainly thanks to the excellent basses.

The final work was J S Bach's sublime motet in eleven contrasting movements Jesu, meine Freude. This was a well thought out performance with beautiful shading of phrases and dynamics and good contrasts of legato and staccato singing in individual vocal lines. This work was accompanied unobtrusively by Hugh Davies on the organ who gave the singers just the right level of support. Hugh also performed solo organ works by J S Bach in each half of the programme, all played with precision and stylistic understanding.

Once more the Wordsworth Singers brought to Cumbria a programme of choral music performed at a high standard giving the audience and performers a great deal of pleasure.

JCG

Child of Joy

Greystoke Church
16 April 2011

A sunny April spring evening, a medieval church, Cumbrian countryside and the company of good friends: add to that some exceptional music-making and this surely must be the recipe for a memorable occasion.  All this was realised by the Wordsworth Singers on Saturday April 16th at Greystoke where a programme of 20th century unaccompanied choral music, interspersed with violin solos, was directed by Charles Harrison, making a welcome return from Lincoln Cathedral. Charles was one of the founder directors of the Wordsworth Singers and his clear and expressive conducting showed an impressive rapport with his singers.

The imaginatively planned programme used as its framework the astonishing setting of the Mass by the Swiss composer Frank Martin. This work from the 1920s presents many challenges for singers with its tricky harmonic progressions and complex rhythms and, apart from an occasional uneasy moment and slight sagging of pitch, the Wordsworth Singers were quite frankly magnificent. Particularly memorable were spine-tingling top Bs from the superb sopranos, excellent precision from the altos and a well balanced sound from the tenors and basses. Clear diction and some impressively neat rhythms, especially at the Benedictus all contributed to an exceptional performance.

A setting of part of Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality by the Canadian-born composer Harold East provided the first contrast.  Child of Joy was written for this choir and the singers revelled in this well crafted and expressive music. The presence of the composer added to the sense of occasion. Then three pieces by American composers Barber, Manz and Whitacre gave ample scope for the choir to demonstrate a beautifully controlled and blended sound.

The two violin solos provided a perfect contrast.  Movements by Bach and Prokofiev were given wonderful performances by local musician Amy Cardigan, now a member of the BBCSSO. The Bach had just the right amount of rubato and the Prokofiev was full of colour and energy: both showed real musical sensitivity.

With such imaginative programme planning and professional execution, the Wordsworth Singers' reputation can only go from strength to strength – don't miss their next concert!

Hugh Davies