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!