Invitation to Music
Concert-goers as well as church-goers will regret Rev Ian Wright’s moving from Bassenthwaite, and assure him of a warm welcome whenever his many talents bring him back to the immediate locality.
Last Saturday Ian’s membership of The Wordsworth Singers enabled him to put on a wonderful concert of choral and organ music to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Bernard Naylor. Born in 1907 on November 22nd (St. Cecilia’s Day, like Benjamin Britten six years later), Naylor died in Bassenthwaite in 1986 at the home of Elizabeth Stern, organist of St John’s.
Few of us will have known Naylor’s music before this concert, and given the high standard of the choir itself and their inspiring conductor, James Grossmith, we could scarcely have had a better introduction.
Certainly, my own appetite was whetted, even if the first item, a Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, was tough going for the first-time listener. (For the choir too, I imagine, though the finished product was admirable). Dating from 1964, a time of musical experimentation, the structure of the setting is tightly-knit, exploring certain chords, imitation, and the whole-tone scale. It would assuredly repay study. Here, as elsewhere, James’s spoken introduction was helpful and informative.
Other pieces, based on the metaphysical poets Crawshaw and Vaughan, and the 20th Century David Gascoyne, proved more direct in impact. Indeed there was both beauty and drama in the Tenebrae piece, It is finished – surely a most fitting alternative to Poulenc and the Renaissance composers for Holy Week.
Fittingly, Naylor’s teachers, Holst, Ireland and Vaughan-Williams also figured in the programme. Vaughan-Williams’s Let us now praise famous men, beautifully phrased at a well-judged tempo, gave an excellent start. The same composer’s gift for melody was evident in Rhosymedre, the first of three organ solos played by Charles Harrison. The distinguished organist also accompanied the choir, making the small Bassenthwaite instrument sound (almost!) like that of Lincoln Cathedral in Ireland’s Greater love. The last page was beautifully done with a pitch-perfect choir articulating the composer’s quest for faith. Ireland’s The Hills was also well done by the unaccompanied voices – ‘calm and constant’ as the poet asserts. So important here to phrase through the many rests, which are integral rather than terminal. Holst’s Psalm 86 and Lennox Berkeley’s Psalm 23 were movingly performed with expressive soloists.
Naylor had a strong Canadian connexion, and it was appropriate that Canadian-born contemporary composer Harold East was in the audience to hear his own music performed. Settings of Wordsworth’s A slumber did my spirit seal and Yeats’s He wishes for the cloths of heaven displayed a fresh and striking gift deployed with enviable economy: the same was true of a short organ piece. The Wordsworth song was dedicated to Joy and Maynard Hall, who do so much for music in Cumbria. Naylor’s father Edward was the composer of the final piece Vox Dicentis – something of a Cathedral classic – which brought the concert to a resounding and satisfying conclusion. It had been a memorable evening, and stimulating too. High standards prevailed throughout.
A Mystical Journey
The Wordsworth Singers’ reputation for imaginative programming and high artistic standards was reinforced by last Saturday’s concert of music by John Joubert, Samuel Barber and Vaughan Williams. The former’s Four Motets were not the easiest pieces with which to begin, but from the outset it was obvious that this fine chamber choir had the measure of Joubert’s intricate choral writing, dividing at times into as many as ten different parts without loss of clarity or pitch, and admirably conveying the religious intensity of the music. Lines from The Youth of Man was given a passionate and committed performance despite a few uncertain notes, whilst in the Three Portraits the choir sang with humour, tenderness and exuberance as the mood of each song demanded. The solo contributions of both Fiona Weakley and Ian Wright in all of the above-mentioned works were consistently distinguished, and conductor Michael Hancock gave clear and energetic direction throughout the concert.
A particular highlight of the evening was baritone Christopher Underwood’s compelling performance from the pulpit of Cycle for Declamation, a setting of three extracts from John Donne’s Meditations by another South African composer, Priaulx Rainier. In Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs Mr Underwood seemed ill at ease, although the organ accompaniment provided by Charles Harrison, who had earlier in the programme displayed his formidable technique in two of Dupré’s Preludes and Fugues, was a source of delight. Before that the old Gaelic poetry from which Barber’s Reincarnations is derived found a particular resonance with the choir, all of whose members seemed to be singing from the heart.
Joubert 80th Birthday Celebration
Bridgewater Hall, Manchester
20 May 2007
Of the choral music that was sung – very attractively and persuasively presented by Michael Hancock and The Wordsworth Singers – the Four Motets showed a genuinely consistent compositional conviction. The choir was confident and well-balanced, and provided a particularly thrilling conclusion to the motet Communion at the end of the set.
All Brightness and Light
For their concert in St John’s Church, Keswick, (last Saturday) the Wordsworth Singers under their new conductor Edward Caswell presented a varied and challenging programme of a cappella choral music from 16th-century Spain to late 20th-century Scotland; and for contrast Peter Yardley Jones, a former organ scholar at Bradfield College, Berkshire and now Lanfine University Organ Scholar at the University of Glasgow, played solo organ interludes spanning the same broad time-frame.
The first part was devoted entirely to music of the Spanish and Italian renaissance. From the start the balance of the choir was impressive, with the counterpoint clearly audible and seemingly effortless. First came Ave Virgo Sanctissima by Francisco Guerrero, Master of Music at Seville Cathedral in the late 1500s, and then part of the Lamentations of Jeremiah (traditionally sung on Easter Eve) by Guerrero’s assistant and successor at Seville, Alonso Lobo. This is a long piece, and so the choir chose nine verses from the middle, each verse introduced by a musical setting of a Hebrew letter, as if it were the setting of an illuminated initial in a manuscript. Curiously the settings of these letters is often longer, and generally with lusher harmonies, than the texts themselves! FInally the choir sang another piece by Lobo, Versa est in luctum, written for the funeral of Philip II of Spain in 1598. As an aid to worship in a formal situation, this style of music is unsurpassed, and the choir did it full justice.
In between the choral pieces Peter Yardley Jones played short organ pieces by the 17th-century Italians Girolamo Frescobaldi and Giovanni Cima. Mr Yardley Jones is a talented young organist, not yet 20, with a fine technique and understanding of style. We look forward to many future appearances by him! My regret was that none of the pieces he played was very long.
After the interval we were on more familiar ground. Orlando Gibbons’s O clap your hands is a joyful eight-part setting of Psalm 47 which the choir sang with panache and gusto. Then came four of Sir Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell, written in the early 20th century, some 300 years after what we have heard the choir sing so far. The change of style was instantaneous and dramatic, and as expected the choir rose to it with little difficulty, making the most of Parry’s much greater dynamic range and complex harmonies. In the last of these songs, There is an old belief, which is in six parts, there was a slight lapse of intonation at the beginning, but the choir quickly corrected itself and we were able to enjoy the song’s rich harmonies from then on.
Between the Gibbons and the Parry songs came another organ piece, Purcell’s A Double Verse (or at least it’s attributed to Purcell), played sensitively by Peter Yardley Jones.
Finally another complete contrast, three pieces by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. The first, for the organ: Farewell to Stromness, evokes the harbour there. The Hoy Calendar, the first of the two pieces for the choir, takes us month by month through a year on the Orcadian island of Hoy, where Sir Peter was living at the time. Its harmonies are bleak, as befits Hoy’s bleak, windswept climate, but it ends gently in December: Christ, lie warm in our byre. The choir sang this piece with great feeling and expression; I for one would certainly like to hear it again.
The concert ended with the second Maxwell Davies piece for the choir, Lullabye for Lucy, which was written to mark the first birth for 32 years in the Orkney parish of Rackwick. I think it was Sir Edward Elgar who, when asked what he thought of the wave of atonality sweeping Europe in the early decades of the last century, said: “There’s plenty of good music in C major still to be written!” Here is one – no sharps or flats to be heard anywhere! And it’s a lovely piece with gentle harmonies, a fitting end to a lovely evening.
From Lithuania with Love
In July 2006 the Wordsworth Singers, ambassadors for music and for Cumbria, toured Latvia and Lithuania. On Saturday, with the generous support of Cumbrian Seafoods, the choir brought to St Mary’s Church in Wigton a programme performed for the first time in the Old Church in Zagare, a small town in northern Lithuania.
This was a very special occasion, with a reception, and a concert, and a professional CD recording, taking advantage of the fine acoustic of St Mary’s. Music brings people together and this programme brought together music from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Britain and Lithuania, sung in six languages!
Following introductory remarks by Bill Dufton and June Hall of Lithuania Link, the Cumbrian charity which helped to arrange and finance the tour, by James Grossmith, now of Scottish Opera, who directed the music, and by the composer, the choir sang, in Lithuanian, Kristina Vasiliauskaite’s motet Blessed Barbora of Zagare. Barbora, beatified in 2005, was the daughter of a 17th century landowner, whose disapproval of her devout Christianity led to her early death. Kristina Vasiliauskaite specialises in composing for voices and her work, commissioned by the Wordsworth Singers and receiving its world premiere on their 2006 tour, is in the great tradition of European Catholic music.
It was followed by the same composer’s Missa brevis, an earlier piece, dynamic, precise and textured, by music composed by Brahms and Dvorak and by five English folksongs, in Daryl Runswick’s artful arrangements. Sam Hutchings, an exceptional young Scottish pianist, played five pieces from the piano cycle ‘On an Overgrown Path’ by Janacek.
This choir aims high and, under James Grossmith’s direction, achieves a very high standard.
Tudor Glories and Inspirations
The Wordsworth Singers were in Brampton on Saturday and a good crowd turned out to see this highly accomplished group. Under their musical director and organ soloist, Hugh Davies, they did not disappoint.
The programme was of English sacred music of the Tudor period and late romantic and early 20th century music and Brampton church itself provided a wonderfully generous acoustic. The choir as usual was accomplished and committed and made a warm, pure, accurate sound. In the opening Sing Joyfully they did just that – a terrific wall of sound ringing around the church. However the choir took time to warm up and in the early stages I could hear individual voices and too many singers were buried in their copies. But they do sing antiphony well and we were regaled with very rich double choir to-ing and fro-ing with great assurance in pieces by both Gibbons and Stanford.
Vox Dicentis by the Cumbrian Canadian, Edward Naylor, was an excellent discovery to start the second half of the concert and the strong, dominant bass entry to open it belied the small number of singers. There were some extremely beautiful, quiet passages, a particularly magical one in Stanford’s Beata Quorum Via. The singers excel in narrative passages, such as in the final ‘hymn’ by Edmund Spencer set by William Harris – such passages seem to help them communicate to the audience so much better.