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Spanish Gold

Holy Trinity Church, Millom
22 February 2015

I attended a concert given by the Wordsworth Singers on Sunday the 22nd February in Holy Trinity church in Millom with little expectation that I would be surprised or moved.

I was - both!

You see, I am used to attending, on sufferance, concerts given by the general run-of-the-mill Anglican-sound-inspired British amateur choir, and leaving unconvinced by the performance, yet convinced that more could be done if folk were only encouraged to really use their voices. Here, at last, was the proof - a choir of amateur voices prepared to take the (Spanish) bull by the horns and give us some good, tonic Iberian tones. The sound was full, the pitching sound, the phrasing exemplary, the pronunciation quite acceptable, and the vocal texture generally full, vibrant, and well-balanced. When a 'solo' effect was demanded from a section a solo is what we got, and when Hispanic special effects - vocal guitar strumming and so forth - were called for, these likewise were served up with panache. We even had true, gutsy chest singing from the women, especially so from the altos, something I had quite given up on from British choirs. Both the choir and its very talented young director, Mark Hindley, are to be roundly congratulated. ¡ Muchas gracias! ¡ Muy bravo!

The repertoire, in three languages, Spanish, Latin and Basque, and drawn from the last two centuries, was extraordinarily varied, ranging from the Renaissance and Baroque flavours of Pablo Casals' (Yes, it is he!) 'O Vos Omnes' through the wonderful folk-inspired 'Sagastipean' of Javier Busto, to the extraordinary cycles of Manuel Oltra and Antonio José, respectively 'Tres Canciones de Amor' and 'Cinco Coros Castellanos'.

I couldn't pick a favourite - or, more correctly, I suppose, there were so many! If pushed to nit-pick, I would venture an opinion that the men's singing, though very fine in strong passages, might perhaps have been a little less assured than the women's in the softer passages, needing more tone and support, and that the soprano sound, though flexible and valiant throughout, might have profited by leaning towards that of the 'gutsier' alto chest voices in this repertoire. Again, the Latin pronunciation might have drawn more upon the articulations of the Spanish language, and the singing in this language, though well-managed, might have profited from tenser 'e's and 'o's, and stronger tonic accents in places.

But these are quibbles: the concert, the programme, and the singing were all wonderful. The choir was complemented by fine and sensitive performances from a very good young guitarist, Manus Noble, who was at ease and informative in the presentation of his pieces, as was Mr Hindley. I especially enjoyed Mr Noble's performances of Len Brouwer's 'Un Dia de Noviembre', a piece of great lyrical beauty, in which delicate melodic lines were to the fore, with beautiful tone drawn from the instrument, and Albeniz's 'Mallorca', in which Mr Noble showed us his perfect mastery of difficult voicings. ¡ Bravo!

All in all, a wonderful evening, and not the last, I hope!

IAN HONEYMAN

Spanish Gold

St Michael's Church, Dalston

21 February 2015

Mark Hindley, conductor of the Wordsworth Singers, demonstrated courage and conviction when he chose a lengthy programme of unaccompanied Spanish secular and religious works of the Romantic and modern period, sung in Latin, Spanish and Basque. I suspect no member of the large audience at Dalston’s St. Michael’s Church had previously come across even one of the works, making a demanding experience for the listener accustomed to recognising at least some ‘old friends’ in a programme. Nevertheless the result was compelling, because this choir performs with impeccable attention to tempo, dynamics, rhythm, intonation and balance. The overall effect resembled observing some large, exotic and elaborate edifice being carefully constructed, ultimately achieving something of great power and beauty.

To pick out a few components of this experience, The Nightingale by Basque composer Jesús Guridi opened dramatically in unison and subsequently the sustained bass notes suggested the drone of Basque pipes. Fernando Sor’s O Crux Ave was sung with appropriately passionate pleading. Manuel Oltra’s Three Love Songs brought the first recognisably Spanish intervals and rhythms with repeated staccato passages and Spanish decorations. To finish, Antonio José’s Five Castilian Songs were full of life and humour, making huge demands on the choir to produce percussive and guitar-like effects.

A real guitar, beautifully played by Manus Noble, provided perfect, quiet contrast. Leo Brouwer’s A November Day was delicate and hauntingly languid. Tarrega’s familiar Memories of the Alhambra with its evocative tremolo sustaining the melody completed the sense of Spanish Gold.

Manus can be heard in solo concert at St. Cuthbert’s Church, Carlisle on 19th March.

JULIET ROWCROFT

Fire and Light

St Martin's Church, Brampton
29 November 2014

Angels literally descended upon St Martin's Church in Brampton on Saturday evening as we were treated to the latest tour de force by Cumbria's premier choir, the Wordsworth Singers. Entitled Fire and Light the incredibly diverse programme took on the subject of angels and how they are represented in music spanning some 500 years.

We perhaps think of angels today as benevolent spirits looking after our best interests, but tonight we were reminded that different ages and diverse cultures saw them as powerful, fiery, intimidating and often mischievous beings too and we were both soothed and stirred up in equal measure by the sheer breadth of repertoire, all skilfully woven together by the choir's musical director, Mark Hindley. Under his authoritative guidance precision and control were paramount from beginning to end. The effect was spellbinding from a choir clearly at the top of their game, able to exploit the many and varied contrasts throughout the concert, whether it be the sustained rich harmonic language of Rachmaninov or the sense of drama with Stainer, the clashy anguished chords of Howells or the lush harmonies from William Harris' Faire is the heaven. Breath control and dynamic subtlety came to the fore with such luminescence during Whitacre's Lux aurumque that not even the less than harmonic exhaust noises from Brampton's boy racers outside could prevent the long-sustained and pianissimo notes from holding sway and hushing those warring angels without. The composer himself wrote in the score "...If the tight harmonies are carefully tuned and balanced they will shimmer and glow" and this was achieved skilfully and seemingly effortlessly by the choir.

From the organ stool, Hugh Davies once again added an assured and sensitively balanced support to the choir, never overpowering but richly diverse in tonal colour to add an extra sparkle to the programme.

The rousing conclusion to the evening came from Parry's well known Blest Pair of Sirens, a swashbuckling choral and organ feast that drew out the genuine enjoyment and exuberance from each and every singer, safe in the knowledge that they had delivered this imaginative programme with sensitivity and musical aplomb.

JERRY KING

Alleluya

St John's Church, Keswick
18 October 2014

On a dark, blustery evening in mid-October, a large and appreciative audience gathered in the warmth and light of St John's Church in Keswick to hear a concert of mostly Tudor music performed by The Wordsworth Singers, under their Director, Mark Hindley.

The concert was titled "Alleluya" and sub-titled "an evening of sumptuous and joyful Early English music, to include works by Sheppard, Taverner, Tye and Aston". And so it proved to be – glorious choral music sung in St John's richly reverberant acoustic, with the choir standing well forward at the head of the nave, thus projecting the music and words to the audience with great clarity and musicianship.

Early English music, especially that of the Tudor Period, has seen something of a revival in recent years, no doubt helped by the likes of The Sixteen, who have become internationally famous and, as recently as three weeks ago, sang in Carlisle Cathedral. Their programme also included four (different) works by John Sheppard and that concert certainly bore comparison with tonight's.

The Sixteenth Century was a time of great political and religious turbulence in this country, with the English Reformation following on from that on the nearby continent, but it was also a time for inspirational choral compositions and we were treated to ten of the finest of these in this evening's recital.

The programme was neatly divided into four parts, with three works in each of the two quarters before the interval and two each in the quarters following the interval. Altogether we heard four works by John Sheppard (1515-58), three by John Taverner (1490-1545), two by Christopher Tye (1497-1573) and a climactic one, Gaude virgo mater Christi, by Hugh Aston (1485-1558). All used sacred texts and were polyphonic settings, employing a number of independent lines of melody, many contain elements of traditional medieval Plainsong and ranged from the loud, energetic and exciting to the quieter and more reflective. The choir coped magnificently with the many contrasts in tempo, rhythm, texture and volume of the music, while maintaining pitch and the balance between the parts.

A special feature of this concert was the two sets of solos, played by lutenist Alex McCartney, sandwiched between the main groups of vocal items. The lute is a rather quiet instrument but Alex seated himself in an ideal position centrally between the choir stalls and so was visible and audible to all. In the first half of the concert he played four pieces by Anthony Holborne (1545-1602), a Fantasy and three Pavans. In the second half he played two pieces by John Dowland (1563-1626), a Fancy and The Frog Galliard. These were all performed with great delicacy and precision and formed a delightful contrast to the more full-bodied sound of the 30-strong choir.

MIKE TOWN