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Midwinter Spring

Penrith Methodist Church 
11 January 2003

The chill of winter outside Penrith Methodist Church was not reflected inside. Not only was the church warm, but the warmth of the performance by the Wordsworth Singers assured the audience that spring was just round the corner.

The Wordsworth Singers, formed in 1997, pride themselves on imaginative programme building, and this concert, called Midwinter Spring, was a perfect example of this. Their programme was a combination of French songs by Saint-Saens, Faure and Debussy, and Song Cycles by English composers Benjamin Britten and Nicholas Maw. The French aspect was reflected again in piano duets by Debussy and Ravel.

The opening two songs by Saint-Saens, Opus 68, were most atmospheric and the first one, Calme des Nuits, was particularly enchanting. The Singers certainly created a feeling of calm with fine legato singing.

As a complete contrast, One Foot in Eden, composed in 1994 by Nicholas Maw, used interesting harmonies not familiar to many listeners. A quartet of soloists from the Singers and the rest of the choir sang well the complexities of harmony and structure and created a feeling of unrest and tension in the middle section. During the singing of this work one could reflect on our Eden Valley before, during and after the foot and mouth crisis.

Britten wrote the Hymn to St Cecilia (the patron saint of music) in 1942. It consists of three contrasting sections, each ending with a chorus Blessed Cecilia. The third section included solo voices from the Singers. All sang with a pure tone and clear words, something that was excellent in all the choral items throughout the programme. The Singers' principal musical director Michael Hancock accompanied most sensitively the Faure Madrigal, a very pleasing piece of music.

Each half of the concert contained piano duets played beautifully by Michael Hancock and Charles Harrison. Petite Suite, by Debussy, and Ma Mere d'Oi, by Ravel, were complementary in style and were composed by the two foremost Impressionist composers. These duets not only showed the skill and musicianship of the performers, but also the range and colour of Penrith Music Club's Steinway piano.

The concert concluded with Trois Chansons de Charles d'Orleans, by Debussy. Again this included solo parts from the choir. As a bonus for the audience, the evening closed with a light-hearted encore Calico Pie (words by Edward Lear), by Richard Rodney Bennett.

With the small numbers in this excellent chamber choir, each singer is vitally important to the whole. The fact that many singers sang solo parts during this one concert shows the high quality of all members. They were a credit to Michael Hancock, while Charles Harrison, who conducted the performance, showed that his skill in conducting equals that of his organ playing.

All who made the effort to attend this excellent concert on a cold winter's evening were rewarded with a delightful programme of singing and playing of the highest quality.


Twilight and Evening Star

St John's Episcopal Church, Perth
2 November 2002

St John's Episcopal Church was the venue on Saturday evening for a performance by The Wordsworth Singers, a choir from the north of England, who returned to Perth for a charity concert in aid of St John's Association. Conducted by Michael Hancock and accompanied, on the organ, by Charles Harrison, this very talented ensemble gave an evening of music entitled 'Twilight and Evening Star'.

The Wordsworth Singers have gained an enviable reputation for their imaginative programme planning and the high quality of their performances and a good size audience were privileged to hear this excellent concert which ranged from Monteverdi to contemporary composers.

The concert opened in perfect style with one of Monteverdi's Vespers, the setting of Psalm 112, Beatus Vir. This lively setting was a perfect curtain-raiser and immediately showed the professional style of performance from the 15 singers. This was followed by an organ solo by Charles Harrison of Cesar Franck's Andantino in G minor. A pleasant piece that was a short interlude before the choir sang the first of their contemporary pieces, a work by the Manchester composer Thomas Pitfield. His choral Suite - Night Music consists of five unaccompanied settings of poems by the composer and showed the versatility of the ensemble to very good effect in this difficult part-writing.

To complete the first half of the concert the singers performed Henri Duparc's Benedicat vobis Dominus, a beautiful setting that was given all the care and attention one had come to expect from this superb ensemble with a well balanced and clear toned performance throughout.

The second half of the concert began with a new piece by a Canadian composer, Harold East. His Songs of the Night consisted of four songs by different poets, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Thomas, W B Yeats and John Ford. The connection of night or sleep gave the composer ample scope to trace the effects of the dark hues that were conjured and the perfect diction of the singers made sure every word was heard.

The finale and major piece of the evening was Gabriel Faure's Requiem. This popular, beautiful setting was the highlight of the concert and was performed with finesse, discipline and a full sound by the singers and sensitively accompanied by Charles Harrison on organ. The soprano soloist, Naomi Dodd, sang the Pie Jesu exquisitely and James Johnson performed the baritone solos with command. Both are members of the choir.

The Wordsworth Singers are indeed an elegant group which performs with dedication, style and professionalism. Their conductor, Michael Hancock, had a flowing style which complemented the singers yet ensured nothing was missed in diction or in ensemble. It was a super evening and deserved a larger audience. Perhaps their next visit will not coincide with so many other events so a wider public can share this talented choir's recitals.


Twilight and Evening Star

St Michael's Church, Stanwix
19 October 2002

On Saturday, St Michael's Church in Stanwix was host to a world premiere. The Wordsworth Singers directed by Michael Hancock presented the first performance of Songs of the Night by Harold East.

The work is a darkly coloured setting of four poems that move from the haunted nights of childhood to the mysterious love of darkness and dreams and then emerges into the light of dawn as the shadows fly away. The moody darkness and the strong contrasts that the Singers conveyed must have pleased the composer, who was present.

There was an equally sensitive presentation of Thomas Pitfield's Night Music. The night begins with the eerie, noiseless trample of the horse's hooves beneath the glimm'ring moon, and ends in the easeful velvet walks of sleep. The performance drew out all the work's delicate impressionism.

The final work of the evening was Fauré's Requiem. The mood of darkness and fear and comfort had already been established by the preceding music, but, as the choir petitioned for eternal rest, we were made to feel the darkness of the abyss.

Georgina Harland sang the Pie Jesu with heartfelt tenderness and James Johnson made a profound appeal for salvation on the day of judgement. The choir concluded with the glorious light of the In Paradisum.

This was a concert that moved from darkness to light. Michael Hancock, with Charles Harrison on the organ, led the choir with a simplicity, sincerity and courage that made for a profound musical and spiritual experience.

Steve Matthews

New Horizons

St Cuthbert's Church, Carlisle
18 November 2000

Darwin has a lot to answer for. In a musical context the process of natural selection is hugely wasteful, consigning a great deal of fine music to the rubbish tip. Under the expert direction of their conductor Michael Hancock the Wordsworth Singers did something to redress the balance by devoting the greater part of their autumn concert to the performance of some unjustly neglected items from the repertory of unaccompanied choral music. Several of these pieces are included in the choir's latest CD New Horizons.

Two highly expressive part songs by Edgar Bainton were first in a succession of delightful surprises (why is this fine composer only remembered for his anthem And I saw a new heaven!) after which Josquin's El Grillo was neatly rendered by the sopranos and altos of the choir. Palestrina's Ah! Look upon these eyes was sung with great feeling, whilst Passerau's Il est bel et bon was rhythmically taut and full of fun.

Guest soloist Scott Bradley showed how versatile and dynamic the classical guitar can be in the hands of virtuoso. A Sonata by Torroba explored many different timbres, and alongside passages of manual dexterity there were moments of magical beauty in Duarte's Variations on a Catalan Folk Song.

The first half concluded with two sacred pieces from the 19th century. I wondered whether Verdi's Pater noster needed a larger choir, notwithstanding the accuracy of the performance and the singers' attention to detail. On the other hand Mendelssohn's richly scored Ave Maria seemed tailor made for this group, an impressive climax in the central fugal section contrasting nicely with transparent part singing elsewhere, capped by a fine tenor solo from Ian Wright.

The music performed after the interval was more demanding both of the singers and the listeners. Wolf’s highly chromatic Resignation posed no intonation problems and the mood of this song was captured superbly. Familiarity with other settings of God's Grandeur did nothing to prepare me for Samuel Barber's highly original treatment of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem. The scoring was more orchestral than choral, with vocal glissandi and sudden batteries of fast repeated notes.

Three part songs by the same composer were given committed and energetic performances. Excellent choral precision enabled the text of Mary Hynes to be clearly heard, and The Coolin was packed with emotion. Scott Bradley's second appearance ended with display of breathtaking virtuosity in Mertz's Hungarian Fantasie. Two negro spirituals were sung with great rhythmic drive by the tenors and basses of the choir, after which the entire ensemble brought the evening to a close with some exquisitely beautiful singing in three folk song arrangements by Holst and Moeran.

The Wordsworth Singers deserve great credit both for their imaginative programme planning and also for the highly professional standard of their singing. Carlisle eagerly awaits their next concert!