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Celtic Routes

St Michael's and All Angels' Church, Hawkshead
12 July 2014

The whitewashed nave and chancel of St. Michael's and All Angels' Church provided a visually striking backdrop for the sombre, black lines of the Wordsworth Singers on a quiet, sleepy summer's evening in Hawkshead. Mark Hindley's glide to the podium belied his intentions: he might have been whispering to himself "This'll wake them up!" The unaccompanied choir launched into an explosion of joyous vocal energy with an enthusiasm that was almost startling!

The rousing 15th century Galician song Pase el agoa (anon) burst forth and set the scene for an evening of Celtic contrasts and surprises, guaranteed to hold the listener's interest throughout the choral performance. The rest of the choral programme explored songs from the Celtic revival from the mid-19th century to the present day.

Granville Bantock's Arranmore was majestically and lovingly performed with broad sweeping vocal strokes that painted an exquisite pastoral scene. This was followed by Emer's Lament for Cuchulain. Lovely as the arrangement is by Bantock, it is now such a famous 'Irish melody' associated with Danny Boy that it can be distracting when heard with the less famous lyrics of this lament.

George Dyson's Ho-ro My Nut Brown Maiden was truly charming. The choir made this demanding piece sound effortless, coping admirably with a complex weaving of melody, harmony and phrasing.

Next came the traditional folk duo, Dere Street, performing the first of their two short sets in the programme. The duo comprises Keith Leisk on Scottish smallpipes and Gary Smith on acoustic guitar. Smart as owt in their kilts they played four Scottish reels transitioning effortlessly through the key changes with just a hint of rock 'n' roll in the guitar accompaniment. This was followed by the Robert Burns anti-war version of Ye Jacobites By Name. One of Gary's own songs called The Reivers Ride Again completed this energetic set.

The Wordsworth Singers returned to sing the Ralph Vaughan Williams arrangement of the Manx song Mannin Veen. This was intensely moving, with a yearning and pulling in of the listener that was irresistible at the slow end of each verse. I've never been to Mannin Veen (The Isle of Man) but when I do I will do well to take this song with me. From time to time during the concert I was given fleeting glimpses of Stanford's Bluebird flying high over nearby Windermere, turning his head towards familiar sounds coming from the church: this imagery was strongest and endured the longest during The Gallant Weaver by James MacMillan. The soaring sopranos and basses provided an enchanting atmospheric landscape, textured beautifully by the choir.

Three songs by Gustav Holst followed, the first two of which were sung masterfully in the Welsh language - Y Cariad Cyntaf and Gwelltyn Glas. I Love My Love was sung with such clarity one hardly needed to refer to the lengthy text to keep track of this love story, with minor 9th chords expertly executed to add some darkness to the drama. By the end of the song it seemed perfectly reasonable that the heroine should love her love simply because her love loved her. Simple!

(Time for an interval)

O Cuco arranged by Julio Dominguez introduced the second half of the programme, with refreshingly light, rhythmic passages alternating with more ponderous lines clearly enjoyed by the singers.

Having lived for a time in North Uist, where I heard many fine local Hebridean singers in a variety of settings, I was especially interested to hear how Granville Bantock's arrangements of three Hebridean songs would travel to the Lake District. The choir sang The Mermaid's Croon in Scottish Gaelic with alto Anne-Marie Kerr singing the haunting solo verses with great tenderness. The sound of this surreal lullaby set somewhere beneath the waves around the Western Isles was just magical! Anne-Marie's robust approach in the jaunty Milking Song lifted the mood, with another opportunity to enjoy her undoubted ability to sing in Gaelic. She was expertly supported by the choir. A short and very sweet song. The Death Croon was the longest of all the songs in the concert lasting nearly eight minutes. Anne-Marie, this time singing in English, delivered the verses with a gentle passion. The song had a relentless and hypnotic quality and was very moving. Bantock's Hebridean songs travelled very well indeed.

Dere Street returned for another short set featuring again a selection of reels on Scottish smallpipes and guitar. Keith Leisk's song about 'a homesick Scotsman' featured a pleasing introduction on low whistle. This was followed by a song most often associated in these parts with the great Dick Gaughan - Both Sides the Tweed. The duo had been billed as smallpipes and mandolin, which I feel would have been an excellent choice of instruments for this concert.

The choir returned to sing The Phynodderee by Haydn Wood. It was voluptuous and whimsical, even quirky at times, seeming to slip in and out of barber shop. Well, anything can happen when the subject is that of a fallen hairy faery knight banished from faeryland to labour on the Isle of Man and swing all alone in the Tramman (Elder) tree!

Representing Celtic Ireland was Seóirse Bodley's setting to music of Seán Ó Riórdáin's famous poem Cúl an Tí, which translates in English to 'At the Back of the House'. The poem is essentially a protest against ghettoisation in six verses of Irish Gaelic. The choir managed the Gaelic pronunciation with an uncanny ease and at a lively pulsating tempo, projecting rich evocative melody, harmony and phrasing. This was followed by the Irish love song I Will Walk With My Love, sung very sweetly and gently by sopranos Julie Leavett and Fiona Weakley, supported by sensitive, sustained chord progressions from the choir.

The concert closed with two light-hearted songs by the Brittany composer Jean Langlais, La fille entêtée (The Stubborn Girl) and L'amoureux de Thomine (Thomine's Lover) - a choice end to a supremely enjoyable concert.

Is this a confident choir? Confident enough to compete, live, with the penultimate football game of the 2014 World Cup Football Tournament from Brazil? Yes ... the faithful came to Hawkshead.