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All Things New

St Cuthbert's Church, Carlisle
29 June 2019

What a treat! To hear The Wordsworth Singers perform a concert of works by Kodály, Reger, MacMillan and Bevan in the elegant surroundings of St. Cuthbert’s Church, Carlisle, was sheer pleasure. Entitled “All Things New”, this interesting and challenging mixture of compositions was conducted by Mark Hindley, with accompaniments provided by Michael Bawtree (organ) and Nick Butters (piano).

Zoltan Kodály’s Missa Brevis filled the first half, with its eight sections, accompanied with greatly varied registrations and musicality by Michael Bawtree, playing the large but electro-mechanically temperamental organ of St. Cuthbert’s. There was an excellent blend of voices and organ accompaniment throughout the varied sections, ranging from very dark and foreboding sonorities in the opening Introit and Kyrie (this work was written as World War II raged outside the composer’s refuge) to the serenely gentle and beautiful Sanctus and Benedictus. The work ended with a very forceful organ solo, climaxing with the sounds of the very loud Tromba.

The second half started with Max Reger’s 8 Geistliche Gesänge. These are a very varied, richly chromatic and atmospheric set of songs, written at the beginning of World War I. Mostly mildly discordant, they range from the confident to the mysteriously peaceful. There was plenty of bright, clear singing in the climaxes, as well as gently flowing choral sounds in the quieter passages.

Kodaly’s ‘Este’ is an evocation of the tranquillity of the late evening, beautifully captured by the choir, making use of exotic harmonies and with a solo soprano floating exquisitely above the choral textures.

After this, Nick Butters played ‘New Roads, Old Destinations’ by Australian composer Stuart Greenbaum, an expertly crafted and performed piano solo, an audio illusion with interesting twists and turns along the way.

James MacMillan’s ‘Alpha and Omega’, with words based on a passage from the Book of Revelation, opens with strident chords, suddenly changing to a more fluid and slightly syncopated section, which then builds to a fine climax. There were a couple of moments of uncertainty in tuning here, however Mark expertly restored equilibrium.

Finally, we heard Allan Bevan’s ‘Singers to Come’. After an introduction on the piano, the music intensifies noticeably, although, overall, it is a soothing work, building to several climaxes, all sustained expertly by Nick’s excellent accompaniment, which matched the ebb and flow of the music perfectly.  Overall, this was an evening of fine musical performances in eminently beautiful surroundings.

Mike Town

Beware the Armed Man

St George's Church, Kendal
9 February 2019

The Wordsworth Singers came to town and proved to be a wonderful choir under their conductor Mark Hindley.

They presented a challenging and innovative programme of works pleading for peace. Two of the works were set against a background of the growing threat from Nazism: the Five Spirituals by Tippett, and Poulenc’s Un soir de neige.  There was also a new work by Savourna Stevenson about St Magnus, the patron saint of Orkney and his refusal to take part in violence, and the Missa L’homme armé by Morales. A programme containing powerful lyrics and evocative imagery of peace in times of conflict

The performance of the Morales Mass had beautiful shaped lines. The choir’s great sense of the interplay of parts, such as in the Sanctus, was wonderful. There were times when there was an imbalance between the parts but a stunning performance nevertheless.

Being a small choir, performing the Negro Spirituals allowed them to present a performance of immense clarity and flexibility.  This was as evident in the softer lyrical movements such as Deep River,  as in the fierier rhythmic movements such as Nobody Knows.

The cold church provided a wonderful backdrop for the desolate bleak snowy landscape of Poulenc’s  Un soir de neige. This highly chromatic work showed off the choir’s ability to perform such a challenging work but I wasn’t sure whether, at times, they captured the sense of the wintery journey of despair and the snowy landscape.

Another aspect of this accomplished choir is their excellent diction which was captured in their telling the story of St Magnus in this English premiere of Magnus by Savourna Stevenson

Please come back to Kendal and bring with you Savourna Stevenson who performed two stunning pieces on the Scottish folk harp. The different timbres she created such as those from South America in Mexican Monterey, and the speed of changing keys using the levers, was dazzling.

Philip Burton

Songs of Deliverance

Austin Friars School, Carlisle
17 November 2018

The acoustically vibrant chapel at Austin Friars School was the perfect setting for a Renaissance musical masterclass on a dark November evening. And who better to deliver this masterclass than The Wordsworth Singers, a choir of significant prestige who have rightly garnered praise and an eager following throughout Cumbria and the North of England? ‘Songs of Deliverance’ explored settings of the Psalms in Latin and German, by two of the foremost Renaissance composers, Schütz and Lassus. All but one of Schütz’s motets here were set for two choirs competing and complementing from balconies on opposing sides of a cathedral. The intimate setting within this chapel precluded this logistical feat, and although there was an element of separation allowing the audience the sense of this, the overall effect was nonetheless stunning. These were dense textures where up to eight parts could be competing for your attention, but the balance was perfect, and never overwhelming. Cellist Lowri Preston’s sensitively played continuo added just the right amount of warmth without upsetting the balance. The acoustics no doubt played their part but had to be managed too, and the balance between lines, dynamic range, tuning and above all the sense of enjoyment from each member of the choir was second to none. Just as the quality of sound was glorious, so too was the use of space between sections and movements that allowed the sound to play out without breaking the spell. At times percussive and declamatory, this was also a sensual dark chocolate melt-in-the-mouth performance! The two Lassus works were no less complex in texture but the clarity of tone blended with the energy and placement in the delivery allowed the words to shine through. This was a brave programme of rich textures that the Wordsworth Singers delivered with full commitment, and praise must be due to their Director, Mark Hindley who not only devised the programme but coaxed and cajoled them from behind the organ continuo, giving them the space and time to really enjoy and express this fabulous music. This was no more evident than in the final piece, ‘Selig Sind die Toten’  (Blessed are the Dead) by Schütz with its modern harmonic shifts and dissonant suspensions that almost hung in the air, a beautiful and moving conclusion to another first class concert by The Wordsworth Singers.

‘Songs of Deliverance’ was performed at Austin Friars School Chapel on Saturday 17th November 2018, and repeated at Our Lady, Star of the Sea & St Michael’s Church, Workington the following day.

Jerry King

Tree Spirits

United Reformed Church, Cockermouth
21 July 2018

Under the inspired leadership of their director, Mark Hindley, the Cumbrian based The Wordsworth Singers have gained a deserved reputation for innovative and creative programming. Their concert last Saturday (21st July) in the United Reformed Church in Cockermouth entitled "Tree Spirits" was no exception. I am sure that to the audience much of the music was unknown, as it was to me. Though we may be well acquainted with the music of Mendelssohn and Vaughan Williams that of the other two composers in the programme, John Bevan Baker and Luke Byrne is unknown to most of us. However, if the works performed on Saturday are an example, I would like to hear more of their compositions.

I have heard The Wordsworth Singers over many years and, in my view, Mark Hindley has taken the choir to new heights. They sing with precision, clarity of diction, musically shaped phrases, graded dynamics and impeccable tuning. He now has a wonderful body of singers who respond to him as a group and not as a collection of individual voices.

This concert of four major choral works without any instrumental interludes, performed in a small hall, must have been exhausting for the singers. The unaccompanied Six Songs “Im Freien zu singen” by Mendelssohn, written to be performed outside were perhaps, at times, a little overwhelming in this small enclosed space but were brilliantly and musically executed. Bevan Baker’s “Dryads”, evoking his love of trees and woodland had all the hallmarks of mid 20th century English style and the influence of his teacher, Vaughan Williams. “In Windsor Forest” by Vaughan Williams, contains five songs from his 1929 opera “Sir John in Love”. There was considerable musical variety here and it was good to hear the splendid singing of the ladies and men separately as well as a characterful solo by Fiona Weakley. The Australian composer Luke Byrne’s witty settings of four of Grimms’ tales were a musical delight and much enjoyed by both singers and audience. Apart from in the unaccompanied Mendelssohn the singers enjoyed the superb accompaniment of Glasgow based Michael Bawtree.

Cumbria can feel very proud of its association with The Wordsworth Singers, which now ranks amongst the best of the amateur choirs in the country. It was good to see the hall so full that extra chairs had to be brought in and to know that this choir is appreciated in this area.

John Cooper Green

The Keys to the Kingdom

St John's Church, Keswick
5 May 2018

If Peter was given the keys so the Wordsworth Singers were given the gift. The gift to bring to life, in a church building, the music of the angels. Twenty-seven voices came together in this cacophonous age to express beauty, hope, peace and harmony.

Saint John’s Church, Keswick, with its barrel ceiling, is just the right place to share such an experience. The building is uncluttered and beautifully kept. This music, this experience, belongs in a sacred building. Every word was distinct and crisp - and in the responsive psalm there were those perfectly kept, mystical silences.

The Director chose the music, drawing from the abundance of Spain and Italy in the sixteenth century, he found Morales ‘Salve Regina’ and Palestrina’s Mass for Saint Peter - amongst other treasures. It was a flawless presentation by twenty-seven individuals who certainly knew their onions. The Sanctus incorporated the whole of life, the whole human experience, before God.

To supplement this Martin Eastwell gave us two reflective moments on the vihuela and the lute. These were brilliantly conceived and delivered. Totally appropriate.

Cumbrians and Border folk are immensely proud of The Wordsworth Singers. Mark Hindley, Director, has that capacity, through his conducting, to release the very best in the individual, thus creating a corporate experience which is an inspiration and a lesson to us all.

Malcolm Stonestreet

A Steadfast Heart

St Mary's Church, Ambleside
17 March 2018

With the dramatic unseasonable weather on Saturday March 17th it was perhaps not the best evening to be driving to Ambleside to a concert with a minibus of students but it was well worth it.

Saturday’s programme featured three works by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams; the first, his Mass in G minor was written shortly after the First World War when Vaughan Williams served as an ambulance driver. The mass, the first English setting of the traditional Catholic text for almost three centuries clearly pays homage to the Tudor choral tradition but is infused with the distinctive modal tones that we associate with Vaughan Williams referencing his love and influence of British folk music.

The choir performed with sensitivity, led with precision by their musical director Mark Hindley. The positioning of the double choir combined with the acoustics in St Mary’s church enhanced the setting. The diction and dynamics were exemplary.  Special mention must be made of the solo quartet choir.

Ursula Leveaux, bassoonist with the Nash Ensemble and principal bassoonist with the Academy of Ancient Music was the invited soloist.  Ursula performed Six Studies for English Folk Song with such precision and sense of phrasing that the listener was drawn in to an almost magical world. She writes in her programme notes that Vaughan Williams’ instructions are that these settings be "treated with love", and on Saturday this was certainly the case. 

The settings of two psalms, Psalm 91 by Patrick Hawes, and My Heart is Steadfast (Psalm 108) by Adrian Williams, showcased yet more versatility of the choir. Psalm 91 with its divided choir and contrasting solo quartet was emotional and powerful and again mention must be made of the solo quartet who performed with aplomb and whose enthusiasm for the music was evident on the facial expressions. The bassoon joined the choir for My Heart is Steadfast and this unusual combination worked extremely well and provided a sensitive and memorable setting.

The concert finished with a moving rendition of Valiant for Truth, Vaughan Williams again referencing his war experiences, and the choir combined both strength and poignancy. My students were full of praise for the concert and so was I.

Janet McCallum

Austin Friars School, Carlisle
18 March 2018

For a lover of the English choral tradition, there can be little more rewarding than listening to beautiful music, sung by a fine choir in a perfect acoustic. Just such a combination of elements was to be had last Sunday afternoon in the chapel of Austin Friars School Carlisle, when The Wordsworth Singers performed a concert, directed by their conductor and pianist, Mark Hindley, with variety provided by the distinguished bassoonist, Ursula Leveaux.

Of the five pieces performed, three were by Vaughan Williams. His Mass in G minor, written for double choir, is thought by many to be one of the most beautiful and effective of the twentieth century: the motet, Valiant for Truth, is an ethereal and haunting work, and the Six Studies in English Folk Song, for solo bassoon and piano, provided a wonderfully mellow contrast to the voices. In a more contemporary mode, Patrick Hawes' Psalm 91 is an easily  approachable and attractive piece which, nonetheless, presented the singers with some taxing moments. Adrian Williams' 'My Heart is Steadfast' is set for the unusual combination of unaccompanied chorus and bassoon and was an interesting and most effective pairing.

There can be little doubt that Wordsworth Singers is now one of the most accomplished choirs in the north of England. Almost the only defect was very occasional smudging and a little flatness at some entries (I nitpick here); but the ensemble and vocal balance was exemplary with glorious but unforced fortissimos searing dramatically through the church, while pianissimos were poised, as if hanging by a thread, with never a hint of intonation problems. 

Some simply beautiful solo singing completed a picture of an eminently confident and superbly trained choir. A Cumbrian jewel to be proud of.

Anthony Peacock