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La Belle Epoque

Victoria Hall, Grange-over-Sands
5 February 2011

There are many good amateur choirs in Cumbria but, judging by their performance in the Victoria Hall, Grange-over-Sands on Saturday 5 February, the Wordsworth Singers must rank as one of the finest. Under the title "La Belle Epoque", and working under their talented musical director Mark Hindley and pianist Sam Hutchings, they presented a programme of late romantic and early 20th–century French music by Debussy, Fauré, Milhaud, Poulenc, Ravel, Saint-Saëns and Satie – an ambitious programme that would present a challenge even to professional choirs.

It is to the choir's credit that they brought off this programme with a display of disciplined and expressive choral singing. French music of this period requires careful tuning and it was obvious that great attention had been paid to this. But there were many other features to admire: clear shaping of phrases, rhythmic vitality in abundance, well-controlled pianissimo singing, clear articulation, and a good blend. Balance, too, was impressive: given the large number of basses (ten) in a choir of thirty voices, there was a danger that the choir might sound bottom heavy, but this never happened.

The singers are capable of producing a wide dynamic range, but it was the quieter singing that drew the best from the choir. Perhaps a little more thought could be given to tone production when the music demands a robust sound.

The programme was enhanced by Sam Hutchings' stylistic playing of solo items – Debussy Preludes, Poulenc Improvisations and Satie’s Gnossienne; and excellent programme notes, in a beautifully produced programme, gave the whole evening a professional feel.

It is sad that such a carefully devised and interesting programme did not draw a larger audience. Performances of this quality are worthy of much greater support.

Clive Walkley

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

St Michael's Church, Stanwix
13 November 2010

Under their conductor Mark Hindley the choir presented a programme entitled Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, exploring English music written during the 16th and early 17th centuries by composers who found themselves on different sides of the religious and political divide and whose faith, experience and allegiance shaped their work.

Two anthems celebrated the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, while another set words by a convicted conspirator of the Babington plot written before his execution.

There is perhaps a danger that 16th century polyphony can sound abstract or polite. The response of choir and conductor here was robust and committed. They touched the feeling underlying the music whether it was the certain affirmation of hope in William Byrd's Quomodo Cantabimus, the prayerful serenity of Robert Parsons' Ave Maria (could this have been addressed to Mary Queen of Scots as well as the Virgin?) or the passionate supplication to the Virgin of the exiled Catholic Peter Philips in his Salve Regina. We felt the sorrow of Michael East's When David Heard, a biblical text adopted in response to the death of Henry Prince of Wales in 1612.

By way of contrast to the refined vocal sound (assisted perhaps by the interesting placement of singers not in groups according to voice range, but intermingled) we were fortunate to hear the distinguished cellist Emma Ferrand in interludes of solo music from later periods, including part of Bach's Second Suite. Here she drew us in to precious moments of intimate stillness. It was refreshing and unusual to hear Domenico Gabrielli's flowing Ricercar written 30 years before the Bach suite.

An illuminating, rewarding and affecting concert.

Laurence Jay

The Tender Flower

Lanercost Priory

24 July 2010



The Peaceable Kingdom

St Mary's Parish Church, Wigton
1 May 2010

In the beautiful setting of St Mary's Parish Church, Wigton, The Wordsworth Singers gave a most distinguished concert of American choral music.

The Singers were evidently at ease with new conductor, Mark Hindley, who also showed his gifts as an organist in two solo items, and as a scholar in the informative programme notes.

The concert took its title from the evening's most substantial item, Randall Thompson's The Peaceable Kingdom, based on paintings by the Pennsylvania quaker, Edward Hicks (1780-1849). These in turn took their inspiration from Isaiah's vision of a perfect world where "the wolf shall lie down with the lamb".

Those familiar with singing the Psalms will know how much scope there is for word-painting. And the articulation of the text is crucial in the present piece, backed up by a feel for the vivid colours of the narrative. The sought-after place is, in fact, a long time coming, preceded by a string of lamentations perhaps more suggestive of Jeremiah than Isaiah.

Randall Thompson's musical idiom is harmonically plain with echoes of the Shakers, the fuging tunes and even the Pilgrim Fathers. So the onus is very much on the choir to make the most of a variety of textures and rhythms. And how well they did this! Vivid contrast informed the opening number, while the second Woe unto them demanded a chant-like articulation where the basses set a very good example.

Howl ye made me think of Belshazzar's Feast. I don’t know quite what is required by this imperative, but the singers were convincing in evoking a Middle-Eastern street scene – nothing English-leafy-suburban about their tone whatsoever!

In contrast, The reeds by the brook was delivered with a sad, cantabile lyricism, the tenors drawing things to a memorable close.

The righteous eventually get their reward in a simple but demanding chordal passage – Ye shall go out with joy. The sonority became quite radiant as all the trees of the field clap their hands – the last-named action conjuring up some delightful musical onomatopoeia. The final gladness of heart was deeply moving.

The concert began with Alleluia, the same composer's best-known work. This is an ambivalent piece, as I learnt from the programme note, commissioned as a fanfare for the much-loved Tanglewood Festival, but affected by the composer's despair at the onset of World War II. It was convincingly done.

The second half of the concert – after an Interval that gave opportunity to admire the stained-glass windows given by Melvyn Bragg – began with Samuel Barber's celebrated Adagio in its Agnus Dei vocal arrangement.

Starting this piece, with its softly purring seventh chord must be very taxing – rather like the dreaded woodwind chords in the Midsummer Night's Dream overture. But the choir got going well at a practical tempo that kept up a flowing four-in-a-bar. The help of one or two East European voices would no doubt have been welcome on the bottom line, but the basses sang quite beautifully in the cello-like passage where they have the tune. The other parts were equally responsive to the beauties of this piece – the effect of which on the American psyche is, I think, comparable to that of Nimrod in Britain.

Barber's lyrical genius also flowered in the exquisite song To be sung on the water. It was beautifully done as were two pieces by composers of later generations – Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium and Eric Whitacre's Sleep. So enchanting were the sopranos in this last item, as in fact was the whole choir, that a wish was expressed for a recording to be played last thing at night!

To give the Singers a well-earned break, Mark Hindley built up the organ's resources to good effect in Aaron Copland’s Episode, off-setting this serious piece with a nimble performance of Pietro Yon’s light-hearted Toccatina. There was a great sense of enjoyment from the audience, as indeed there had been throughout the whole evening.

Andrew Seivewright