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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