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Finzi Centenary Concert

Sands Centre, Carlisle
7 July 2001

It would be hard to think of a more apt choice for a Cumbrian celebration of Finzi than his inspired setting of Intimations of Immortality.

The composer would surely have been delighted with last Saturday's performance at the Sands Centre. Conductor Michael Hancock had a firm grasp of the work's structure which he communicated effectively to his musicians, who responded superbly to the many changes of tempo, dynamic and mood through which Finzi sought to interpret Wordsworth's poetry.

The well-drilled choir of 130 appropriately included the Wordsworth Singers, as well as the Cockermouth Harmonic Society and the Sale Choral Society.

Words were articulated clearly and meaningfully; if the choral sound was rich and thrilling at times, it was also gentle and transparent when it needed to be.

The Northern Chamber Orchestra were on top form too, with some particularly distinguished woodwind solos. Ian Thompson, the tenor soloist, sang with enormous inspiration, communicating the work's profundity despite occasional moments of imbalance with the accompaniment.

Emma Hancock returned (this time with her violin) to give a stunning performance of The Lark Ascending.

Once again visionary programme planning and inspired direction produced a real winner.


New Horizons

St Cuthbert's Church, Carlisle
18 November 2000

Darwin has a lot to answer for. In a musical context the process of natural selection is hugely wasteful, consigning a great deal of fine music to the rubbish tip. Under the expert direction of their conductor Michael Hancock the Wordsworth Singers did something to redress the balance by devoting the greater part of their autumn concert to the performance of some unjustly neglected items from the repertory of unaccompanied choral music. Several of these pieces are included in the choir's latest CD New Horizons.

Two highly expressive part songs by Edgar Bainton were first in a succession of delightful surprises (why is this fine composer only remembered for his anthem And I saw a new heaven!) after which Josquin's El Grillo was neatly rendered by the sopranos and altos of the choir. Palestrina's Ah! Look upon these eyes was sung with great feeling, whilst Passerau's Il est bel et bon was rhythmically taut and full of fun.

Guest soloist Scott Bradley showed how versatile and dynamic the classical guitar can be in the hands of virtuoso. A Sonata by Torroba explored many different timbres, and alongside passages of manual dexterity there were moments of magical beauty in Duarte's Variations on a Catalan Folk Song.

The first half concluded with two sacred pieces from the 19th century. I wondered whether Verdi's Pater noster needed a larger choir, notwithstanding the accuracy of the performance and the singers' attention to detail. On the other hand Mendelssohn's richly scored Ave Maria seemed tailor made for this group, an impressive climax in the central fugal section contrasting nicely with transparent part singing elsewhere, capped by a fine tenor solo from Ian Wright.

The music performed after the interval was more demanding both of the singers and the listeners. Wolf’s highly chromatic Resignation posed no intonation problems and the mood of this song was captured superbly. Familiarity with other settings of God's Grandeur did nothing to prepare me for Samuel Barber's highly original treatment of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem. The scoring was more orchestral than choral, with vocal glissandi and sudden batteries of fast repeated notes.

Three part songs by the same composer were given committed and energetic performances. Excellent choral precision enabled the text of Mary Hynes to be clearly heard, and The Coolin was packed with emotion. Scott Bradley's second appearance ended with display of breathtaking virtuosity in Mertz's Hungarian Fantasie. Two negro spirituals were sung with great rhythmic drive by the tenors and basses of the choir, after which the entire ensemble brought the evening to a close with some exquisitely beautiful singing in three folk song arrangements by Holst and Moeran.

The Wordsworth Singers deserve great credit both for their imaginative programme planning and also for the highly professional standard of their singing. Carlisle eagerly awaits their next concert!



Penrith Methodist Church, Penrith
5 February 2000

The well-planned and meticulously presented concert given by the Wordsworth Singers under their conductor Hugh Davies on Saturday will have done much to enhance the choir's growing reputation.

The first half of the programme was built around Christopher Tye's Euge Bone Mass, four movements of which were separated by anthems and organ music of the period creating a liturgical ambience. The 22 members sang with obvious commitment and fine sense of style, clearly enjoying the richness of the six-part texture with its frequent false relations and making the most of Tye's dramatic juxtaposition of homophonic and polyphonic techniques. A certain lack of clarity amongst the divided tenors and basses was largely attributable to a performing pitch which favoured the upper parts.

Eccard's motet When to the temple Mary went was given a thoughtful and relaxed performance, while Parson's serene Ave Maria completed the choral items in the first half. This was sung with great control, although I did wonder whether the lower contrapuntal lines might have acquired greater intensity.

The second half of the concert was devoted to music of the 19th and 20th centuries. Grieg's Ave maris stella was highly expressive, after which came two of Bruckner's more popular motets, Ave Maria and Os Justi.

For me however, the highlight of the evening was Tippett's five spirituals from A Child of Our Time. Each was sung with consummate assurance, precision and attention to detail. The choir produced a wonderfully resonant tone and explored a wide dynamic range. Ensemble was tight; diction was clear and the soloists were excellent.

For the last, the solo quartet moved to the gallery above the main chorus, adding a further dimension to an already rich sonority. Such was the intensity of the atmosphere thus created that the audience found it hard to begin the applause.

In addition to his clear and concise direction of the singers, Hugh Davies also contributed four delightfully varied pieces on the organ.


This Worldës Joie

St John's Church, Keswick
31 January 1999

Relative newcomers to the Cumbrian musical scene, the Wordsworth Singers operate a professional-type schedule, rehearsing as concerts demand. Co-directors of Music are Michael Hancock and Charles Harrison, much admired for their work with the Cockermouth Harmonic Society and at Carlisle Cathedral.

Keswick had a chance to hear this talented ensemble on Sunday January 31st at St. John's Church. If more could have taken this opportunity, there was no mistaking the enthusiasm of those present, or the quality of the music-making. Clearly the Wordsworth Singers is a name to look out for: the group has already achieved much, and promises more.

Entitled This Worldës Joie, the programme was subtitled A Sequence of Seasonal Music. Although Byrd's O magnum mysterium had to be replaced by Weelkes's Hosanna, this piece still bears on the post-Christmas scene as well as having its more obvious Palm Sunday context. A crisp, well-maintained tempo gave an incisive start, despite one or two tentative entries.

Poulenc's O magnum mysterium and Videntes stellam quickly make friends with audience and performers alike given accurate chording as on this occasion.

At the organ Charles Harrison then contributed a further seasonal offering in Les bergers from Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur, deploying the beautiful, but limited, resources of the organ to telling effect.

Formidable difficulties abound in the Arnold Bax motets I sing of a maiden and This Worldës Joie which followed. The slithering chromatics that pervade this composer's sumptuous symphonic scores are so much harder to realise with unaccompanied voices, especially when divided. Strength in depth is required, as the football managers say; and it is probably appropriate here to commiserate with those choir members who were not so much confined to the substitutes bench as debarred through illness from entering the fray.  An unwelcome seasonal touch this!

If the Bax pieces lacked the necessary security, there was much to enjoy in the two motets by Pierre Villette. The second is a real choral lollipop, if that is not a disrespectful term for a Hymne à la Vierge. Both singers and audience revelled in the Glenn Miller harmonies which still, 50 years on, have mileage in them, as the King's Singers and others have abundantly shown.

Post-Interval Monteverdi madrigals offered relaxation for the singers and delight for the audience. Two real finds in this enterprising programme were the Holst Op. 12 Partsongs - simple and warm as In the bleak midwinter - and two anthems by Edgar Bainton, despite the second's strangely fanciful Robert Graves text. All beautifully sung.

Those who know it from the Carlisle Cathedral CD were delighted, as was everyone, by Michael Hancock's expressive singing of the aria from Bach's Ich habe genug, while Anthony Peacock's artistry in Brigg Fair (well-backed by the choir) was sheer delight.

Moving from Lincolnshire to more flat terrain in Yarmouth Fair the Singers showed only modified rapture at the thought of the East Anglian resort as a holiday venue, despite the twin attractions of the Fair and the maid with golden hair: not to mention Peter Warlock's ravishing setting of the folk-song. Perhaps by now the Choir were a tad anthem-bound. More likely copy-bound: the show-bizzy demands of light concert-hall material differ from those of the Cathedral choir, and words and music need to be virtually memorised if the performance is to come alive.

But all in all what a splendid concert with its exciting programme blend of the known and unknown. This was a memorable evening of music. Make a note of the 15th of May at Caldbeck Parish Church for the next concert.   You won't regret it, I promise you!