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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

La Belle Epoque

St Michael's Church, Dalston
6 February 2011

The Wordsworth Singers must be one of the very best choirs in the county.  If you needed proof you should have been at their concert of largely early 20th century French music, in Dalston on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Fortunately there was a good turn out and they sang to a very appreciative audience.

This was an ambitious programme of music by Debussy, Faure, Milhaud, Poulenc, Ravel and others, challenging both musically and linguistically, even to professional choirs. Intonation was mostly spot on over a long and largely a capella programme, lovely phrasing, rhythmic accuracy and vitality, and some splendidly inventive sound qualities and dynamic range, particularly in Poulenc's Seven Songs.

For me the highlight of the whole programme was the quietest moment of Calme de Nuit, stillness, evenness of tone and beautiful balance; the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. In a few big moments, there was a slightly harsh tone crept in, plus the odd shaky tone quality – but I'm being picky. It was a very impressive programme. Sam Hutchings's Satie, Poulenc and Debussy piano diversions were elegantly played.

The Wordsworth Singers have been developing very well under their previous high profile conductors but under Mark Hindley's drive and imaginative programming they have progressed still further, both musically and professionally. For my taste it has got a little large as a group, but it's still a serious-minded and accomplished group of singers, many of whom are able to contribute as soloists as well.

Anice Paterson

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