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No Small Wonder

Penrith Methodist Church
24 January 2004

An enthusiastic audience was treated to an adventurous concert of choral and organ music given by the Wordsworth Singers, conducted by Jeremy Suter, with organist Hugh Davies at Penrith Methodist Church. The theme of the concert was Epiphany - the Wise Men, the water into wine, Christ's baptism, and the massacre of the Innocents: all themes traditionally associated with the period immediately after Christmas.

The concert included several old favourites, among them Three kings from Persian lands afarThe shepherds' farewellHere is the little door, and Bethlehem Down, all beautifully sung, but the outstanding feature of the programming was the inclusion of several pieces by living composers.

Audiences sometimes fight shy of supposedly difficult modern music, but these pieces were very approachable and enjoyable and presented with obvious enthusiasm by the singers. Judith Weir's setting of medieval Scots words, 'Jerusalem rejos for joy' was noticeable not only for the music but also for the clarity of the words and for the fact that the choir was in tune at each point when the organist joined them for the chorus. Two French pieces were probably new to most of the audience: Les Mages (The Wise Men), from La Nativite du Seigneur, by Olivier Messiaen, the French mystical organist, was performed by Hugh Davies, creating a wonderful picture of the Magi plodding across the desert on their camels; and Videntes stellam, a motet by Francis Poulenc, a well-known disaster area for choirs, was given a triumphant performance.

Also from the 20th century we heard music by Herbert Howells, William Walton and Kenneth Leighton, and there was very new music from Richard Shephard (Prayer for a new mother), Paul Edwards (No small wonder) and Adrian Self (A sword shall pierce thy heart). For this last piece, a soprano soloist was located high up in the gallery, providing a spatial as well as a musical separation from the choir. As with all of Adrian Self's music, the result was most effective.

The concert opened with a double choir motet by Palestrina and featured other music from the Italian Renaissance, as well as English music from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, a varied mix which nonetheless kept to the theme of the evening.

This was a delightful concert, with good programming, good diction, good intonation and quite obviously a good lead from Jeremy Suter.

David Jones

Duparc Benedicat vobis Dominus
Martin Mass
Duruflé Requiem

Carlisle Cathedral
17 July 2003

Across the German Ocean

Lanercost Priory
3 June 2003

The Wordsworth Singers lived up to their reputation for imaginative programming in last Saturday's concert which explored the cultural exchange of ideas across the North Sea in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Most pieces were by German composers, and the four works by Englishmen bore all the hallmarks of Teutonic influence. A direct line of descent can be traced from Jacob Handl, represented by an eight part Pater Noster, to EW Naylor, whose Vox Dicentis uses the earlier master's technique of contrasting upper and lower voice groups.

This dramatic motet received a full-blooded performance from the 26-strong choir, including accomplished solos from Georgina Harland and Ian Wright.

In between we explored the complex vocal writing of J S Bach, whose eight part Singet dem Herrn was performed with a stylistic awareness that more than made up for any lack of clarity in some of the women's lines.

The German early-romantic pieces elicited some of the finest singing of the evening. Under Hugh Davies's economical direction the choir produced a polished sound in Bruch's richly textured Music's Sweet Voice and a lovely warmth of tone in the sparser writing of Brahms's Geistliches Lied. Rheinberger's Abendlied was particularly expressive. Of the two Stanford works Coelis ascendit came off particularly well, with a strong sense of rhythm and much attention to detail, whereas Wood's Hail, Gladdening Light seemed disappointingly sluggish. The concluding item, Strauss's Der Abend was a veritable tour de force. The advanced harmonic language and complex 16-part texture of this remarkable work makes it the ultimate challenge for a choir, yet this performance succeeded admirably in conveying the imagery behind the text. Three varied organ solos beautifully played by John Morris gave the choir some respite and the audience additional pleasure.

JEREMY SUTER

St John Passion

Carlisle Cathedral
13 April 2003

Disaster threatened this performance when tonsilitis struck principal tenor Martin Hindmarsh. But at 24 hours' notice, Glyndebourne-trained Stephen Brown stepped in, having sung Bach's St Matthew Passion in Windsor, slept for three hours and travelled up to Carlisle via Brighton.

No wonder his ovation was of special warmth: it was merited on musical as well as personal grounds. If his account of Peter's remorse and the scourging of Jesus were deeply affecting, these were but two instances from a wonderful interpretation of the Evangelist's role.

All who contributed to this magnificent performance deserve credit: conductor David Gibbs must have worked tirelessly. His cathedral colleagues also played a full part, with Jeremy Suter at the chamber organ, Darren Williams and Anthony Peacock as counter-tenor and tenor soloists, Allan Smith and Michael Deakin as Peter and Pilate, not to mention the lay-clerks and choristers who joined the Wordsworth Singers and members of the Abbey Singers in the splendid choir.

Paul im Thurn, who sang the part of Jesus, is also associated with the cathedral choir, as is Michael Hancock, principal bass soloist. Fiona Weakley, Geoff Hughes and Charles Hattrell were effective in the minor roles.

From Paris came soprano Emily Elias. Her radiant voice, soaring effortlessly over the orchestra, made each aria a thing of beauty.

Before the performance Canon Rex Chapman set the music in the context of the Passion story, noting how St John relates the tragedy to the glory. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in the aria It is finished. Jeanette Summers played the cello obbligato with a unforced eloquence that led naturally to the Easter fanfares, enunciated with vivacity by Darren Williams.

The playing of the Northern Chamber Orchestra was a joy throughout and an inspiring support for the solo singers. Anthony Peacock combined expressiveness with commendable musicianship in the notoriously demanding Erwage aria. In contrasting mood was Michael Hancock's contemplative delivery of the arioso that precedes it.

Paul im Thurn's voice is a fine one. He brought authority to the Christus part, not wholly the serenity that some give to it. But there was much to admire, as indeed with all the soloists from this area who took part.

The quality of the choir was sustained virtually throughout. Any quibbles - a shaky start here, or more staccato there - must pale in the face of the overall achievement. At the beginning of Holy Week this was a deeply rewarding experience for listeners and performers alike.

Andrew Seivewright