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Sweetness Magnifical

St James Church, Whitehaven
28 November 2015

On a truly filthy November night, fifty (at least) of us braved an unheated church at the top of a windy hill in Whitehaven to hear what is without doubt the finest body of voices in the region perform at the top of their game.

The choir began with Finzi’s anguished, utterly sincere and personal Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice, which was given the pace and breadth to reveal the tragedy at the heart of this work. Aquinas’ hymns are in the tradition of praise, but Finzi, not a religious man, sees beyond them to the ultimate human tragedy of death and sacrifice, a mood that director Mark Hindley and the choir understood and communicated intelligently, respectfully and without sentimentality. The final “Amen” is among the most beautiful settings ever of this over-used word, transcendental in its beauty, and brought reverently to a conclusion with great care and vocal control.

After Ernest MacMillan’s entertaining and virtuosic Cortège Académique, superbly played by Simon Niemiński on the three-manual Norman and Beard organ, the choir gave us Walton’s The Twelve. 

Walton can suffer (sometimes justly) from accusations of insincerity, so great was his facility and so obvious his mastery of craft, but this piece is redeemed by Auden’s searingly honest and at times uncomfortably graphic libretto; and when it can find one, a technically accomplished performance, which this was. Having been present at the rehearsals, I know well how hard this piece is to put together, and what a great deal of private practice has to be done to lift these notes off the page. This was a terrific performance, full of energy, commitment, clarity and fidelity to the text. 

These composers were rich men of little or idiosyncratic faith writing religious music for an agnostic audience perturbed by progress and war. Bax, by virtue of his great wealth, had the least motivation of them all to practice intellectual rigour, and it showed. In Mater Ora Filium however, constrained by the exigencies of the Latin text, with its imaginative interpolation of English verse, his creativity shone out. The complex polyphonic structure was meticulously, and beautifully, brought to life. Every detail of this challenging work was made clear and comprehensible by the unaccompanied double choir in the warm, if at times unforgiving, acoustic of Carlisle Spedding’s elegant interior (Pevsner called it “the finest Georgian church interior in the country”).

Another virtuosic interlude from Simon Niemiński, Hollins’ A Song of Sunshine, preceded the final work, Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, a piece as well known as The Messiah in the choral repertoire, and as likely to suffer formulaic, indifferent performance. Not so in this characterful interpretation, which took great care to illuminate Smart’s religious ravings by means of a careful and respectful fidelity to the text, never however losing sight of Britten’s abundant energy, playfulness, and willingness to take the tragic ostinato to its painful conclusion, for example in “for I am in twelve hardships”. The choir sang clear as a siren in Britten’s heartfelt message of encouragement through the iron curtain to his friend Shostakovich, underscoring “for I am under the same accusation with my Saviour” with Shostakovich’s own initials.

Simon Niemiński accompanied at all times with sensitivity and grace, particularly in the choice of registrations, and special mention must go to all the soloists throughout the evening, in particular Fiona Weakley’s beautifully judged and resonant alto solo, “O Lord, my God” in The Twelve. Mark Hindley rehearsed and conducted the choir with intelligence, warmth and insight, and his clarity in direction was a joy to watch.

There was a pause of true appreciation before warm applause, and we came out onto the rain-lashed, gale-blown streets, warmed now and for days to come by the memory of the Wordsworths’ artistry and generosity.

NICK BUTTERS

Pearls of the Italian Baroque

St Thomas's Church, Kendal
13 June 2015

This was an evening of truly sumptuous baroque choral music, interspersed with two impressive cello solos by Bach and Vivaldi played beautifully by Cecily Smith.

The Choir, under the expert direction of Mark Hindley, filled the listener with enjoyment and confidence. The luscious music flowed, always with impressive attention to detail, intonation, and dynamics appropriate for a sensitive delivery of the texts.

For some of us, the music was mostly unfamiliar and this provided an extra interest. There were pieces by Lotti, Gesualdo, D. Scarlatti, A. Scarlatti and Carissimi. The choir was happy both with and without instrumental continuo accompaniment. The continuo, which consisted of a double bass, cello and chamber organ added excitement and colour to the choruses and was always played with great precision and sensitivity.

The singers were arranged in various positions depending on the number of voice parts in the pieces, and were obviously experienced enough to be happy with this.

It is impossible to select a favourite item as all were so good, but perhaps Gesualdo’s interesting harmonic progressions in O vos omnes were really well executed, and the expert solo singing in Domenico Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater was impressive. Carissimi’s Missa L’homme armé was a magnificent ending to a wonderful concert which was very enthusiastically appreciated by the audience.

It was a privilege to listen to such a dedicated ensemble who produced a very professional result.

MARGARET PATTINSON

 

 

 

 

 

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