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Fire and Light

St Martin's Church, Brampton
29 November 2014

Angels literally descended upon St Martin's Church in Brampton on Saturday evening as we were treated to the latest tour de force by Cumbria's premier choir, the Wordsworth Singers. Entitled Fire and Light the incredibly diverse programme took on the subject of angels and how they are represented in music spanning some 500 years.

We perhaps think of angels today as benevolent spirits looking after our best interests, but tonight we were reminded that different ages and diverse cultures saw them as powerful, fiery, intimidating and often mischievous beings too and we were both soothed and stirred up in equal measure by the sheer breadth of repertoire, all skilfully woven together by the choir's musical director, Mark Hindley. Under his authoritative guidance precision and control were paramount from beginning to end. The effect was spellbinding from a choir clearly at the top of their game, able to exploit the many and varied contrasts throughout the concert, whether it be the sustained rich harmonic language of Rachmaninov or the sense of drama with Stainer, the clashy anguished chords of Howells or the lush harmonies from William Harris' Faire is the heaven. Breath control and dynamic subtlety came to the fore with such luminescence during Whitacre's Lux aurumque that not even the less than harmonic exhaust noises from Brampton's boy racers outside could prevent the long-sustained and pianissimo notes from holding sway and hushing those warring angels without. The composer himself wrote in the score "...If the tight harmonies are carefully tuned and balanced they will shimmer and glow" and this was achieved skilfully and seemingly effortlessly by the choir.

From the organ stool, Hugh Davies once again added an assured and sensitively balanced support to the choir, never overpowering but richly diverse in tonal colour to add an extra sparkle to the programme.

The rousing conclusion to the evening came from Parry's well known Blest Pair of Sirens, a swashbuckling choral and organ feast that drew out the genuine enjoyment and exuberance from each and every singer, safe in the knowledge that they had delivered this imaginative programme with sensitivity and musical aplomb.



St John's Church, Keswick
18 October 2014

On a dark, blustery evening in mid-October, a large and appreciative audience gathered in the warmth and light of St John's Church in Keswick to hear a concert of mostly Tudor music performed by The Wordsworth Singers, under their Director, Mark Hindley.

The concert was titled "Alleluya" and sub-titled "an evening of sumptuous and joyful Early English music, to include works by Sheppard, Taverner, Tye and Aston". And so it proved to be – glorious choral music sung in St John's richly reverberant acoustic, with the choir standing well forward at the head of the nave, thus projecting the music and words to the audience with great clarity and musicianship.

Early English music, especially that of the Tudor Period, has seen something of a revival in recent years, no doubt helped by the likes of The Sixteen, who have become internationally famous and, as recently as three weeks ago, sang in Carlisle Cathedral. Their programme also included four (different) works by John Sheppard and that concert certainly bore comparison with tonight's.

The Sixteenth Century was a time of great political and religious turbulence in this country, with the English Reformation following on from that on the nearby continent, but it was also a time for inspirational choral compositions and we were treated to ten of the finest of these in this evening's recital.

The programme was neatly divided into four parts, with three works in each of the two quarters before the interval and two each in the quarters following the interval. Altogether we heard four works by John Sheppard (1515-58), three by John Taverner (1490-1545), two by Christopher Tye (1497-1573) and a climactic one, Gaude virgo mater Christi, by Hugh Aston (1485-1558). All used sacred texts and were polyphonic settings, employing a number of independent lines of melody, many contain elements of traditional medieval Plainsong and ranged from the loud, energetic and exciting to the quieter and more reflective. The choir coped magnificently with the many contrasts in tempo, rhythm, texture and volume of the music, while maintaining pitch and the balance between the parts.

A special feature of this concert was the two sets of solos, played by lutenist Alex McCartney, sandwiched between the main groups of vocal items. The lute is a rather quiet instrument but Alex seated himself in an ideal position centrally between the choir stalls and so was visible and audible to all. In the first half of the concert he played four pieces by Anthony Holborne (1545-1602), a Fantasy and three Pavans. In the second half he played two pieces by John Dowland (1563-1626), a Fancy and The Frog Galliard. These were all performed with great delicacy and precision and formed a delightful contrast to the more full-bodied sound of the 30-strong choir.


Celtic Routes

Carlisle Cathedral
13 July 2014

The Carlisle International Festival closed with an accomplished programme of Celtic songs by the
Wordsworth Singers.

The audience were treated to a well-balanced assortment of Celtic moments, which were supplemented by director Mark Hindley's thorough and extensive programme notes, not to mention his translations of the texts, delivered to the audience with such humour as to draw the audience further in.

The rhythmic opening song Pase el agoa instantly demonstrated the choir's superior vocal balance and clear diction.

The programme featured the music of Granville Bantock whose arrangements of traditional melodies from Ireland and the Hebrides were quite beautiful and showed that this choir not only blends beautifully, but also consists of individual local talent.

Many programmes this year will contain the music of George Dyson to commemorate 50 years since his death. Ho-ro, My Nut-brown Maiden was a lovely piece with modulations galore, ably negotiated by the singers.

The highlight for me was The Gallant Weaver by James MacMillan. This was stunning. The atmosphere that was created was so pure that even a pin dare not drop and disturb it. The silence after the final phrase was only broken by the richly deserved applause.

Two charming pieces by Jean Langlais finished the concert, the Deux Chansons Populaires de Haute-Bretagne were performed with the wilful exuberance the text demanded.

The choir and director seemed almost symbiotic throughout and the expressive dynamic colours they created together made this a very special performance indeed. A treat for those who attended, and a big miss for those who didn't.


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.


The Passion

The Chapel, Austin Friars St Monica's School, Carlisle
5 April 2014

Elias Canetti described Christianity as a 'religion of lament'. In Passiontide, we Christians go into lamentation overdrive: the sheer sorrow of the (temporary) death of God, for which, killed by humans, we feel not only sorrow but guilt. And our poets add on layers of drama, horror, and grief. What the Wordsworth Singers showed us last Saturday night was that the Renaissance Church did lamentation big style, and they had not given up sonority for Lent. The massive washy acoustic of Austin Friars' tall cavernous Chapel in Carlisle proved an ideal space in which to allow the Wordsworth's 33 voices to produce a full fat sound to do the season proud.

On the menu were monumental polyphonic writings for large 'a capella' choirs, produced by German, Spanish and Italian composers inspired by the vastness of St Mark's Venice, a sound world more bewildering even than Carlisle's magnificent Citadel railway station. How could any musical offering fill such a space? Oddly an answer came humbly from a single viol player. Elizabeth Dodd treated us to a set of pieces which helpfully broke up each half of the concert with the far more intimate sound of a single instrument.

The choir was able to show off the range of sonorities at its disposal with a strong opening in Hassler's Miserere: trombone-strong basses grounded full chords, coloured by firm tenors and rich altos and topped by plangent, soaring sopranos. The concluding "Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto", despite its Lenten context, displayed a gratifyingly visceral magnificence. Yes, those Christians love their grief.

And on to Palestrina, the restrained conservative whose smooth progressions and dissonance are always carefully prepared and controlled (as the Wordsworth's musical director Mark Hindley put it). Hindley's direction ensured that the lines of mediaeval chant that underlie the music were ever flowing, and wove deliciously in the echoing space of the chapel above us.

The viol music gave us popular tunes heard by the same writers and singers who would have been handed the wet-ink parts of the choral pieces in our programme. Both the tenor and bass viol (Elizabeth Dodd showed us a little of each) are played a little like a cello but have six rather than four strings, and are fretted like a guitar for better intonation. The richness comes from the bowing of the instrument: a clever player can stroke combinations of strings to produce a harmonised melody. Elizabeth Dodd led us into a world where a single viol player could hold court to a rapt audience, sending out a veritable orchestra of sound.

The flowing lines of Giovanni Croce's O triste spectaculum are in my notes, but utterly obscured in superficial memory by what followed. Carlo Gesualdo is precious to early musicians: he allows us gentle folk to imagine we are as glamorously dangerous as no doubt he was. He gained a reluctant notoriety as a butcher recluse, having killed his wife and her lover (oh, and several others) and retreated to his walled castle to evade vengeance and write exquisite but fascinatingly weird choral music. The Wordsworths obviously loved this one (O vos omnes), which to me had strange premonitions of Bruckner some 250 years later. As Gesualdo looked to his God for salvation, we glimpse a terror worthy of any Gothic thriller.

In Melchior Franck's Inspice vulnera ['Gaze on his wounds'], Mark Hindley proved his worth in keeping an energetic tempo, resisting the obvious temptation to allow richness of sound (palpable and pleasing) to deteriorate into self-indulgence.

The Guerrero motets that began the second half showed off the lapidary dignity of the basses, whose sweeping chant lines made the music sing, while the upper voices decorated their work.

Then in Victoria's Vexilla Regis we heard from both upper and lower voices in Gregorian chant verses, interspersed with polyphony leading to a ringing cantus firmus from the sopranos and a warm velvety 'Amen'.

Who would have predicted fireworks at the end? Two delightful riffs from the sopranos topped off the evening, in Anerio's Stabat Mater. Yet another huge piece that suited our lofty venue, showed off the consistency of the singers who divided self-confidently into three equally strong antiphonal choirs, and proved that lamentation, and our human longing for hope in our darkest hours, inspire the greatest art.


Immortal Bach

United Reformed Church, Cockermouth
8 February 2014

It was billed as 'an evening of radiant choral music by J S Bach and some of the many composers profoundly influenced by his genius, including Brahms, Mendelssohn, Cornelius and Nystedt', and so it was for the almost capacity audience who attended the Wordsworth Singers' concert in Cockermouth's URC Church last Saturday, 8th February.

For those of us who rate Bach's music as some of the finest ever written, particularly for its astonishing variety and technical mastery, the title of the event, "Immortal Bach" was immediately an exciting and intriguing prospect. Nor were we disappointed. The choir and their guest pianist, Lynda Cochrane, excelled and thrilled us throughout the concert.

The venue, with its low, almost flat, ceiling - so unlike most churches and chapels in the county with their high pointed naves, - could have been a difficult location for this 30-strong choir, perhaps tending to overwhelm the audience with sound during the climaxes. However, under Mark Hindley's expert direction, the dynamic range was perfect for the setting – sitting on the back row I heard every word in the quiet passages, including several soloists from within the choir, while the loudest sections were full-bodied, perfectly filling the church with rich vocal sounds.

Bach's Singet dem Herrn provided a thrilling start to the evening's music making: it was performed confidently, with great vigour in the first and third sections, which contrasted nicely with the more reflective middle section. Immediately after this, Busoni's transcription for piano of Bach's organ Chorale Prelude Nun komm der Heiden Heiland was played with great colour and excellent phrasing by Lynda Cochrane. She then followed this with the second Menuet by Edward MacDowell, based on one of JSB's short pieces in the Anna Magdalena Notebook, with great poise and delicacy.

The choir returned to sing Peter Cornelius' popular The Three Kings, in which the soloist's excellent bass voice rose beautifully above the choir's chorale accompaniment. There followed Heinrich Kaminski's beautiful Vergiss mein nicht from his set of six chorale settings, in which the chorale melody was probably written by Bach himself – here the choir relished the late Romantic harmonies to the full, in a highly polished performance.

The most unusual work of the evening was Immortal Bach (the title piece) by 20th Century Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt. Although starting simply with the first few bars of Bach's chorale melody, the choir then separated into several sub-choirs, singing the music at different tempi, which produced some astonishingly dissonant harmonies, which would tax the intonation of any group of singers. However, the Wordsworth Singers held their nerve (and pitch) triumphantly!

The second half of the concert started with Brahms' motet Warum ist das licht gegeben, an extended work based on texts from the Biblical books of Job and Lamentations, as well as the letter of James. It was sung with great poignancy – the phrasing was beautifully executed throughout. This was followed by two more of MacDowell's delightful Menuets, which provided some lighter relief, after Brahms' intensity, as well as George Shearing's Get off my Bach – this was certainly modern jazz, but included a large number of musical ideas derived from Bach.

Mendelssohn's Warum toben die Heiden is a fairly lengthy setting of part of Psalm 2, whose structure owes much to Bach, but the harmonies are distinctively those of Mendelssohn, who was largely responsible for the revival of interest in Bach's music in the early 19th Century. This was a particularly moving performance, with two 4-part choirs matching perfectly, plus solo sections, whose voices blended beautifully with the overall ensemble.

The concert ended with Glenn Gould's hilarious So you want to write a Fugue? – in many ways a parody of a Bach Fugue, full of characteristic Bach-type figures and counterpoint, together with very amusing words, which the choir evidently enjoyed singing immensely and which brought an excellent concert to a very enjoyable conclusion. Well done, all!