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Light of Flanders

St Michael's Church, Dalston, near Carlisle
Holy Trinity and St George's RC Church, Kendal
23 & 24 April 2016

A small but enthusiastic audience greeted the Wordsworth Singers for a concert in Holy Trinity & St George’s Catholic Church, Kendal on Sunday afternoon 24 April. The concert was entitled ‘Light of Flanders’ with repertoire drawn from the period c.1400 to 1600 when an important group of northern European composers exerted a huge influence on the development of Renaissance polyphony. To present a programme of such a specialised nature is a huge challenge artistically; moreover, this was not the kind of programme guaranteed to pull in the crowds so the Wordsworth Singers must be congratulated on their enterprise as well as their performance.

This fine award-winning choir (Cumbria Life Culture Award 2015, ‘Choir of the Year’) draws its membership mainly from north Cumbria and makes infrequent visits to the south of the county. The choir’s conductor, Mark Hindley, is a professional musician with a well-established reputation for his work as an organist and choir trainer. His excellent, informative and scholarly notes in the beautifully produced programme helped to place this largely unfamiliar repertoire in perspective.

The choir makes a very robust sound. An hour and a half of unaccompanied singing is a challenge to any choir but the Wordsworth Singers rose to this. They are fortunate in having many voices of good quality to draw upon to form smaller units within the main body when required and there were some lovely moments when these smaller units were used to give contrasts of colour and texture.

It was a brave gesture to open the concert with Guillaume Dufay’s motet Nuper rosarum flores. This work is rhythmically very intricate – the individual parts moving at different speeds – and is usually regarded as the preserve of professional ensembles; and yet here was an amateur group giving a convincing performance of one of the composer’s most celebrated works.

Similar rhythmical complexities are encountered in Johannes Ockeghem’s Intemerata Dei Mater which followed and again the singers succeeded in pursuing their individual lines without any outward sign of strain.

Renaissance polyphony sets a challenge for singers: they need to stay in tune, of course, and, at the same time, be able to sustain and shape long melodic lines smoothly, maintaining pure vowel sounds. All this, the choir did well.  However, the balance between the various parts was not always quite so successful. Numerically, the sopranos and basses far outweighed the altos and tenors and there were times when the melodic lines of the inner parts were obscured by the very strong soprano line. Perhaps the resonant church acoustic – which is wonderful for this repertoire – may have been partly responsible for this. However, it was a joy to hear this marvellous music performed with such expertise in Kendal.