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O Key of David

St Oswald's Church, Grasmere
28 June 2008

On Saturday last the Wordsworth Singers in St Oswald’s Parish Church Grasmere gave the fifth concert featuring the music of J S Bach. Also included was music by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, and Heinrich Schütz born exactly one hundred years before Bach.

The programme began atmospherically with Arvo Pärt’s settings of the Seven Magnificat Antiphons. Although lacking a sympathetic acoustic the choir sang with great control and the sonority of the basses gave a richness to the work, which is resonant of the composer’s Eastern European background. Rendering the contrast between bleakness and warmth within this work was superbly done and the antiphons came to a spine tingling conclusion with the fortissimo exclamation of the seventh antiphon - O Emmanuel, our king and lawgiver with its sustained high tessitura for sopranos.

The first half of the programme ended with a sumptuous performance of Schutz’s polychoral Deutsches Magnificat. Although there was one nervous moment this did not detract from the feeling of the grandiose and the choir captured the style of this music with its full 'continental sound' brilliantly.

The major work of the whole programme was Bach's motet Jesu, meine Freude. This is the longest, most musically complex and earliest of the six motets and also probably the best known. Each of its eleven sections uses combinations of the voices in five, four and three part and a range of Baroque choral writing styles with different degrees of complexity. There was a remarkable balance of sound, beautifully projected and with clarity of individual lines and I was particularly struck by the purity of the soprano line.

For the final choral work we returned to the music of Arvo Pärt, ...which was the son of.... , a very different work from that which opened the programme, showing considerable influence of Spirituals and Barbershop and a sense of humour which is not something often associated with his music. The refined and dignified singing of the Wordsworth Singers beautifully portrayed this setting of the lengthy genealogy of Jesus in St Luke’s Gospel.

Mention has not been made so far of organist Ian Shaw who not only accompanied the Bach and Schütz but also performed solo in Bach's fifth Trio Sonata and his own piece quizzically entitled Solomon and the Gnat. The Trio Sonatas are notoriously difficult to perform with their exposed linear writing and Shaw performed with style and accuracy. His own composition is a quirky piece, with influences of Messiaen and one that deserves to be played more often.

Cumbria is very fortunate to have a choir of this standard who can perform such a wide range of music with a real sense of style. In turn the choir is fortunate to have as their director Edward Caswell whose vocal expertise is able to mould this group of singers into an ensemble which produces a quality of sound and blend that other choirs can only envy.

John Green