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Night Flight

Lanercost Priory, nr Brampton
1 July 2017

The Wordsworths are on a roll, gathering momentum with each concert and growing as an ensemble, finding greater homogeneity of sound and developing at the same time a unique voice. The energy which went into the learning of Bach’s B Minor Mass recently has preserved itself in the communication of the reflective, intimate settings which made up the characteristically wide-ranging programme of this latest concert, framing three modern composers with works by established early modern writers.

The act of setting words to music has been such a constant of our culture that we seldom if ever question the wisdom of doing it: yet perhaps there is some poetry so good, so musically expressive in its own right, that to add music is superfluous and otiose (there is some mileage in Paul Valéry’s assertion: “Hearing verse set to music is like looking at a painting through a stained-glass window”). It is with this in mind that one could question the young Holst’s choice of lyrics in his Five Part Songs (op 12) with which the Wordsworths started the concert. Musically seductive and with evident promise, it was paradoxically the choir’s expertise at word painting and clarity of diction which pointed up, to this listener at least, the occasional disconnect between music and lyric, notably in the Christina Rossetti setting in which the rhythm and morbid fascinations of the text were subjugated to beauty of musical line – a fine disconnect perhaps, but a real one.

No such uncertainty in the next work, Tavener’s Love bade me welcome, in which the choir demonstrated their now accustomed sensitivity to mood and nuance by sitting back and letting the work take control, simply transmitting Herbert’s text without superfluity of expression by means of Tavener’s assured setting.

The third work in the programme was played by guest cellist Martin Johnson, much applauded soloist and principal cello of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin, accompanied deftly by Mark Hindley. Holst’s Invocation is a glorious shimmering maze of late-romantic, early modern English impressionism (to conflate at least three genres) and it was moving and illuminating to hear it in this context, the almost visible filigree of the music soaring up and around the arches of the priory.

The choir joined Martin Johnson for the final work in the first half, Tavener’s simply stunning and deservedly popular Svyati, a setting for cello and chorus of a short Slavonic text from the eastern Orthodox liturgy. This piece is far more than a composer’s hanging music on a convenient lyrical hook, but a sublime commentary and conversation between equals arrived at through dedication and meditation.

Simple, direct and compelling, this required great control from the choir, technically (basses for example on a bottom “E” for nearly the entire work), emotionally and intellectually. Mark Hindley directed with his usual assurance, never letting the music out of his grasp, yet always granting the freedom of expression vital and integral to this piece.

Straight after the interval we heard Cecilia McDowall’s Night Flight, three settings for cello and chorus of poems by Sheila Bryer, and written to mark the centenary of the first woman to fly across the English Channel. This was by turns ravishing and witty, with an inspired new approach to word painting in the description of a crow landing on a windy day. The sudden key change at the end of the third setting illuminated rather than obscured the “vast medieval heaven” of the text, and the piece received a deservedly enthusiastic welcome from the large audience.

This was followed by Delius’s short, complex Midsummer Song, based on an anonymous verse (probably by the composer) imagining play and laughter in the woods on midsummer day. The choir seemed to enjoy it too.

Martin and Mark then played a far more serious piece, Delius’s Romance for cello and piano, which despite its somewhat lightweight appellation takes the form of a distinctly brooding and passionate emotional journey, moving from darkness to ecstasy, vividly portrayed by the two players.

The final item consisted of Five English Folksongs in the arrangements by the genre-crossing composer Daryl Runswick. These are not settings in the sense of those by Holst, say, or Vaughan Williams, but rather commentaries on the texts, their purpose being to tell the story, illuminate and entertain – which they did to great effect, the choir maintaining the same energy and purpose as at the start. Deservedly long and enthusiastic applause saluted the performers in a thoroughly rewarding evening, before Martin Johnson concluded for us with a simple, delicately moving piece by, in his words: “My teacher’s teacher”, Pablo Casals. Perfect.