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Songs of Love and Longing

Penrith Methodist Church
27 May 2006

The Wordsworth Singers are off on tour to Lithuania shortly and we were treated to some of the repertoire they are taking with them.

It was a challenging programme, most of it a capella in Czech and German, and it came off splendidly. The choir musically danced their way through the centrepiece of the luscious Brahms Liebeslieder waltzes. They gave us a wide range of expressive qualities, though a few entries and the balance suffered a bit from having no conductor out front. The piano accompaniments, plus the well-chosen Slavonic dance piano duet interludes from Ian Ryan and Michael Bawtree, were light and flexibly played with energy.

This fine choir is improving every time I hear them and having a new and up-and-coming musical director, James Grossmith, is clearly having benefits. A colleague of his, Michael Bawtree, directed the choir on this occasion with clarity and precision.

The only thing I missed was a stronger, earthier tone quality for the first set of Dvorak songs - they were a bit too sweet and English for my taste. But then, their gusto and humour in the refreshing English folksongs that finished the programme couldn't have been bettered.

Anice Paterson

Poulenc Mass, 
Scarlatti Stabat Mater

St Michael's Church, Dalston
25 February 2006

The Wordsworth Singers under James Grossmith were joined by Carlisle Cathedral assistant organist John Robinson. He started the programme with a Bach Adagio, and then provided the continuo for Scarlatti's Stabat Mater, a long, taxing work with the voices in 10 parts.

The opening built splendidly to a tutti of some grandeur, but there were uncomfortable moments later on.

Small solos emerged from the choir, but Paul Hutchinson and Mary Hitch had longer virtuosic passages. The Amen was impressive, with great waves of sound.

Bach's Organ Concerto in A minor, its vigorous outer movements framing a beautiful aria over a pulsating bass, was followed by Poulenc's Mass in G, a difficult work with angular melodies contrasting with complex legato chord progressions. It was an interesting idea to intersperse the movements with organ pieces by Vierne, but for me it broke the flow and mood.

The Singers performed magnificently. The ethereal Christe eleison floated between the robust Kyries, the chording in the Gloria was spot on, Hosannas rang out in rich chords, Mary Hitch's melismatic solo opened the Agnus and the whole work ended in peaceful resolution.

Douglas Cook


Carlisle Cathedral
20 December 2005

Under conductor James Grossmith, the singers gave a spirited and highly-disciplined account of Handel's Messiah. The florid challenges that Handel continually sets the chorus were brilliantly met, often at very fast speeds.

However the experiment of mixing the chorus up – the 12 men interspersed among the 21 women, was only partly successful, detracting from Handel’s contrapuntal skill in such choruses as Let us break their bonds asunder.

No praise can be too high for the two female soloists, Emma Louise Harper (soprano) and Anne-Marie Kerr (alto), who sang with great beauty of tone. Tenor Dominic Peckham and bass James Johnson also gave sterling performances in their demanding arias.

The orchestra – just 15 young players – performed with commitment and skill. I did find many of the fashionable fast tempi for the largo and larghetto sections detracted from the pathos of the more reflective parts, but these reservations apart, it was a splendid evening of singing and playing.

David Sutton

Music of the Virgin Mary

St Andrew's Church, Greystoke 
24 September 2005

The Wordsworth Singers presented another of their fine concerts of a cappella singing at St Andrew's in Greystoke on September 24.

Starting with Palestrina’s beautiful motet Assumpta est Maria, they went on to sing the associated mass, followed by a similar pairing by Palestrina's much less-known contemporary, Luca Marenzio.

Palestrina's smooth texture and complex polyphony made a striking contrast with Marenzio's jaunty rhythms and sudden antiphonal effects.

The singers conveyed these to good effect, with some fine solo singing from members of the choir.

But probably the most notable part of the programme came at the end, with two pieces not heard in Britain before by the still-living former director of the Sistine Chapel Choir, Domenico Bartolucci.

Bartolucci combines the traditional idiom of papal music with later melody and harmony in a remarkable way.

The singers were very successful in conveying the urgency and intensity of his Stabat Mater and Pax in Coelo. This second piece is a sort of concerto for soprano and choir, with the solo part working sometimes independently, sometimes in contrast and sometimes in combination with the choir.

Fiona Weakley's lovely tone and controlled line made this a most moving experience. Director James Grossmith is clearly getting the best out of this talented choir.

David Raeburn

Israel in Egypt

Carlisle Cathedral 
16 July 2005

The Carlisle International Summer Festival concluded with Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt. The Wordsworth Singers, under their inspirational conductor James Alexander Grossmith, were accompanied by the RSAMD Early Music Players, and soloists who were also students from the RSAMD.

All the soloists had clear, expressive voices - the two sopranos, Erica Parrish and Alexandra Cassidy, sounded beautifully even in their duet The Lord is my strength. Alto Roslin Agnew negotiated the low tessitura of The land brought forth frogs with ease and style. The baritones Phil Gault and Ross McInroy also had light, lyrical voices – perhaps they could have been a little more fierce in the duet The Lord is a man of war! and tenor Alistair Digges was also a little gentle in his aria The enemy said.

But the evening really belongs to the chorus and orchestra who dramatised their many contrasting choruses perfectly. Israel in Egypt is remarkable for the amount of work there is for the choir, including one section with eight choruses in a row: the Wordsworth Singers showed the extent and variety of Handel's writing as they sang each section with wonderful agility and variety of tone. A remarkable achievement.

Mary Hitch

Christmas Concert

St Michael's Church, Dalston
4 December 2004

In the reverential setting of St Michael's Church in Dalston, The Wordsworth Singers proved that the music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier sounds just as fresh and lively today as it did when it was first written almost 350 years ago.

The Singers were under the direction of their new conductor, James Grossmith, also director of choral music at the Royal Scottish Academy, who was handed the baton by Michael Hancock.

The evening began with the glory of the first Christmas Day and the great mystery of Christ's birth as portrayed in the serene music of William Byrd and the exultant glory of Victoria's O Magnum Mysterium.

The centrepiece of the concert was the Messe de Minuit pour Noel.

Charpentier based the mass on folk carols. Jeremy Suter on the organ announced the sprightly rhythms and the choir transformed them into seasonal images of harmonic peace and light.

The choir’s pleasure in the music and the disciplined liveliness of their performance conveyed the natural joy at the heart of the sacred music.

A solo performance of Messiaen's depiction of the shepherds by Jeremy Suter on the organ was followed by two medieval French carols to complete the second half of the concert.

Michael Hancock, the founder of The Wordsworth Singers, has found a worthy successor in James Grossmith. To the very fine voices and ensemble singing and the eagerness to perform challenging programmes, James has added an historical understanding that has given new depth to their performance.

Steve Matthews