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Inspired by Song

St Cuthbert's Church, Carlisle
23 February 2008

With spring surely just around the corner, what better way to spend a Saturday evening than with The Wordsworth Singers in St Cuthbert's Church. This, the third in a series of concerts highlighting the works of J S Bach, continued the choir's tradition of presenting unusual works alongside the fairly familiar in a big programme of music from the 16th century to the present day.

Two of Bach's motets, the great Komm, Jesu, komm in eight parts, and the less often heard O Jesu Christ meins Lebens Licht formed the core of the first half of the concert, conductor Edward Caswell's assured direction drawing good, firm singing from the choir and making these into poignant and memorable performances. Remaining with the Bach theme, organist John Robinson treated the audience to a virtuosic performance of the thrilling Prelude and Fugue in G, before enticing us into another world with Cesar Franck's Choral No 2, the choice of registrations making this magnificent instrument fairly glitter.

Three beautiful and very extraordinary anthems by Henry Purcell preceded the interval, after which we heard three Ave Marias - firstly the exquisite setting by the 16th century Spaniard Victoria, then Bruckner's magnificent setting in which he seems to achieve "vastness and miniaturism at the same time", and lastly that by Hungarian Sandor Szokolay. This piece, written in 1988, with close contemporary textures and luminous sonorities amply demonstrated The Wordsworths' versatility as a choir, and received here in Carlisle tonight its UK premiere.

"Listen to the sound of harmony, this melodious musical instrument of modern skills, which plays sweetly and sings full of praise..." exhorts the 12th century manuscript which Zoltan Kodaly set to music in 1966. Laudes Organi "for organ with choir" proved to be Kodaly's last completed work, and with its imposing organ introduction and interludes this paean to the King of Instruments brought an uplifting concert to a triumphant conclusion. I look forward to the remainder of the series.

David Upton

Christmas Oratorio

Kendal Parish Church
20 December 2007

The Wordsworth Singers fulfilled a long-held ambition to perform J S Bach's Christmas Oratorio at Kendal Parish Church on December 20th, conducted by James Grossmith. As an aperitif to the main work, the large audience was given in the first half of the concert a spirited rendering of Bach's Magnificat, the song which, according to Luke's Gospel, Mary the mother of Jesus sang rejoicing in her pregnancy.

The Magnificat was taken at a terrific pace, perhaps reflecting the exuberant joy of Mary, and the result was very exciting. It worked well for the most part, though there were technical problems for some singers and some players at this speed and there was a distinct hitch at the beginning of Omnes generationes, where the choir entry overlaps with the soprano solo, sung by Bronagh Byrne. The opening chorus came over with great drive and everyone appeared to be enjoying themselves. The singers - soloists and choir - were clearly trying to produce an authentically German pronunciation of the Latin text, as opposed to the usual Italianate pronunciation common in this country. This did present some problems and some inconsistencies, most noticeably when the Contralto and Tenor soloists, Louise Collett and Andrew Dickinson, landed several times on the same vowel sound in a duet, but pronounced it differently. Much as your reviewer is in favour of this kind of authenticity, it has to be said that the end result sounded like an English choir trying to sound German. But these are small criticisms of what was overall a stimulating performance.

After the interval, the performers embarked on the first three cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio. This is really a sequence of six cantatas intended for performance at St Thomas', Leipzig, where Bach was Kantor, on successive days through Christmas to Epiphany, in 1734-5. However, Bach himself grouped them together under the label 'Oratorio'. Once again, we were treated to brisk speeds for the quicker sections. This time the choir was singing in German and they sounded far more convinced about that than they had about the Germanic Latin in the Magnificat.

There were many notable features of this performance. The quick sections were indeed quick, whilst that marked grazioso was indeed graceful, and the other slower sections were treated similarly well. A 'Natural' Trumpet (the precursor of the modern, valved trumpet, and much more difficult to play) was used to great effect in the bass solo, sung by Anders Ostberg, Grosser Herr - Mighty Lord and King all glorious. One wonders whether in the Messiah, written in 1741, Handel modelled his great bass solo with trumpet, The trumpet shall sound, on this movement. And likewise, was Handel's Pastoral Symphony, which introduces the story of the Shepherds Going to the Manger in Messiah a reflection of Bach's Larghetto movement which introduces his shepherds?

A feature of the concert which surprised even the performers was the success of the Chorales. Chorales are the hymnody of the Lutheran church and are thus well-known and 'owned' even in secular situations in Germany. Bach always included chorales in his cantatas and other larger works, for the congregation to join in. At this concert, the words and music of the chorales were printed in the programme, and the audience was invited to stand and join in, accompanied by the great west end organ of Kendal Parish Church, played by Ian Thompson. The resulting wall of sound from the organ and the large audience was thrilling in the extreme. The final Chorale, sung by the choir, was a triumphant statement of Christian theology, of the triumph of Christ and the forgiveness of sins.

In addition to the soloists mentioned, there was also Emma Harper, as second Soprano. All five soloists made an impressive line-up. All are students, or recent students, at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama at Glasgow, as is Anna Hansen, the leader of the orchestra, the Glasgow Camerata. Though most of the instruments used were modern, the players produced a Baroque lightness of touch to give an authentically Bachian feel to the music.

The conductor, James Grossmith, was making a welcome return to the Wordsworth Singers, of whom he was at one time Musical Director. He is now chorusmaster of Scottish Opera and is much involved in operatic work in Scotland and elsewhere. It is to be hoped that there will be further opportunities in Cumbria to hear him conduct concerts of this standard.

David Jones

Bach and Beyond

St Andrew's Church, Penrith
13 October 2007

'Bach and Beyond' was the title of The Wordsworth Singers' first concert under their new musical director Edward Caswell, and from the start it was clear why the choir have established a fine reputation as a chamber choir.

Few choirs would dare to start a programme with a highly complex eight-part Bach motet, but the choir sang their challenging contrapuntal lines with conviction and, as throughout the evening, with a real appreciation of dynamics and diction.

French repertoire of the early 20th century formed the basis of the rest of the programme. Fauré’s Requiem, with soloists Georgina Harland and Bruce Paterson, was given a restrained performance with great control of vocal line and some particularly sensitive singing from tenors in the Agnus Dei and sopranos in the Sanctus and the In Paradisum.

Poulenc's Litanies à la Vierge Noire for ladies' voices and a typically quirky organ accompaniment was beautifully sung with some thrilling climaxes and some lovely reflective moments. This is a rarely-performed piece but well worth hearing. The mystic mood continued with the rich and spacious harmonies of Duruflé's four Gregorian motets.

Peter Yardley-Jones was a sensitive accompanist to the choral works and played organ pieces by Buxtehude and Alain. The polytonality and Stravinsky-like textures of Alain’s Fantasmagorie were particularly intriguing features of a successful and enterprising concert.

The Wordsworth Singers will be performing the first three cantatas of Bach's Christmas Oratorio and his Magnificat in Kendal Parish Church on December 20. On this form it should be an event to savour.

Colin Marston

Invitation to Music

St John’s Church, Bassenthwaite
28 July 2007

Concert-goers as well as church-goers will regret Rev Ian Wright's moving from Bassenthwaite, and assure him of a warm welcome whenever his many talents bring him back to the immediate locality.

Last Saturday Ian's membership of The Wordsworth Singers enabled him to put on a wonderful concert of choral and organ music to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Bernard Naylor.  Born in 1907 on November 22nd (St. Cecilia's Day, like Benjamin Britten six years later), Naylor died in Bassenthwaite in 1986 at the home of Elizabeth Stern, organist of St John's.

Few of us will have known Naylor's music before this concert, and given the high standard of the choir itself and their inspiring conductor, James Grossmith, we could scarcely have had a better introduction.

Certainly, my own appetite was whetted, even if the first item, a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, was tough going for the first-time listener. (For the choir too, I imagine, though the finished product was admirable). Dating from 1964, a time of musical experimentation, the structure of the setting is tightly-knit, exploring certain chords, imitation, and the whole-tone scale. It would assuredly repay study.  Here, as elsewhere, James's spoken introduction was helpful and informative.

Other pieces, based on the metaphysical poets Crawshaw and Vaughan, and the 20th Century David Gascoyne, proved more direct in impact. Indeed there was both beauty and drama in the Tenebrae piece, It is finished – surely a most fitting alternative to Poulenc and the Renaissance composers for Holy Week.

Fittingly, Naylor's teachers, Holst, Ireland and Vaughan-Williams also figured in the programme. Vaughan-Williams's Let us now praise famous men, beautifully phrased at a well-judged tempo, gave an excellent start. The same composer's gift for melody was evident in Rhosymedre, the first of three organ solos played by Charles Harrison. The distinguished organist also accompanied the choir, making the small Bassenthwaite instrument sound (almost!) like that of Lincoln Cathedral in Ireland's Greater love. The last page was beautifully done with a pitch-perfect choir articulating the composer's quest for faith. Ireland's The Hills was also well done by the unaccompanied voices – 'calm and constant' as the poet asserts. So important here to phrase through the many rests, which are integral rather than terminal. Holst's Psalm 86 and Lennox Berkeley's Psalm 23 were movingly performed with expressive soloists.

Naylor had a strong Canadian connexion, and it was appropriate that Canadian-born contemporary composer Harold East was in the audience to hear his own music performed. Settings of Wordsworth's A slumber did my spirit seal and Yeats's He wishes for the cloths of heaven displayed a fresh and striking gift deployed with enviable economy: the same was true of a short organ piece. The Wordsworth song was dedicated to Joy and Maynard Hall, who do so much for music in Cumbria. Naylor's father Edward was the composer of the final piece Vox Dicentis – something of a Cathedral classic – which brought the concert to a resounding and satisfying conclusion. It had been a memorable evening, and stimulating too.  High standards prevailed throughout.

Andrew Seivewright