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All Brightness and Light

St John's Church, Keswick
10 February 2007

For their concert in St John's Church, Keswick, (last Saturday) the Wordsworth Singers under their new conductor Edward Caswell presented a varied and challenging programme of a cappella choral music from 16th-century Spain to late 20th-century Scotland; and for contrast Peter Yardley Jones, a former organ scholar at Bradfield College, Berkshire and now Lanfine University Organ Scholar at the University of Glasgow, played solo organ interludes spanning the same broad time-frame.

The first part was devoted entirely to music of the Spanish and Italian renaissance. From the start the balance of the choir was impressive, with the counterpoint clearly audible and seemingly effortless. First came Ave Virgo Sanctissima by Francisco Guerrero, Master of Music at Seville Cathedral in the late 1500s, and then part of the Lamentations of Jeremiah (traditionally sung on Easter Eve) by Guerrero's assistant and successor at Seville, Alonso Lobo. This is a long piece, and so the choir chose nine verses from the middle, each verse introduced by a musical setting of a Hebrew letter, as if it were the setting of an illuminated initial in a manuscript. Curiously the settings of these letters is often longer, and generally with lusher harmonies, than the texts themselves! FInally the choir sang another piece by Lobo, Versa est in luctum, written for the funeral of Philip II of Spain in 1598. As an aid to worship in a formal situation, this style of music is unsurpassed, and the choir did it full justice.

In between the choral pieces Peter Yardley Jones played short organ pieces by the 17th-century Italians Girolamo Frescobaldi and Giovanni Cima. Mr Yardley Jones is a talented young organist, not yet 20, with a fine technique and understanding of style. We look forward to many future appearances by him! My regret was that none of the pieces he played was very long.

After the interval we were on more familiar ground. Orlando Gibbons's O clap your hands is a joyful eight-part setting of Psalm 47 which the choir sang with panache and gusto. Then came four of Sir Hubert Parry's Songs of Farewell, written in the early 20th century, some 300 years after what we have heard the choir sing so far. The change of style was instantaneous and dramatic, and as expected the choir rose to it with little difficulty, making the most of Parry's much greater dynamic range and complex harmonies. In the last of these songs, There is an old belief, which is in six parts, there was a slight lapse of intonation at the beginning, but the choir quickly corrected itself and we were able to enjoy the song's rich harmonies from then on.

Between the Gibbons and the Parry songs came another organ piece, Purcell's A Double Verse (or at least it's attributed to Purcell), played sensitively by Peter Yardley Jones.

Finally another complete contrast, three pieces by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. The first, for the organ: Farewell to Stromness, evokes the harbour there. The Hoy Calendar, the first of the two pieces for the choir, takes us month by month through a year on the Orcadian island of Hoy, where Sir Peter was living at the time. Its harmonies are bleak, as befits Hoy's bleak, windswept climate, but it ends gently in December: Christ, lie warm in our byre. The choir sang this piece with great feeling and expression; I for one would certainly like to hear it again.

The concert ended with the second Maxwell Davies piece for the choir, Lullabye for Lucy, which was written to mark the first birth for 32 years in the Orkney parish of Rackwick. I think it was Sir Edward Elgar who, when asked what he thought of the wave of atonality sweeping Europe in the early decades of the last century, said: "There's plenty of good music in C major still to be written!" Here is one - no sharps or flats to be heard anywhere! And it's a lovely piece with gentle harmonies, a fitting end to a lovely evening.

Nicholas Howard