Berwick/Bamburgh/Holy Island Tour
Berwick-upon-Tweed, 19 July
Bamburgh Castle, 20 July
Holy Island, 21 July
In Green Pastures
The Wordsworth Singers were founded in 1997 and since that time have established themselves as one of the finest chamber choirs in the north of England. Much of the credit for their recent success can be ascribed to the inspirational direction of Edward Caswell. His final appearance as conductor featured works by three of the great 19th century German Romantic composers, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Brahms in a programme well suited to the spacious acoustics of St. Andrew’s Church, Penrith.
From the outset the choir sang with a confident and relaxed sound, the soprano line in particular dealing with high notes and difficult intervals effortlessly. The intense harmonies of the opening unaccompanied motets by Brahms (O Heiland, reiss die Himmel and Es ist das Heil) would be a challenging start to any concert, but the control of dynamics and phrasing showed a choir assured in its teamwork and excellent in its balance. The gentler harmonies of Schubert’s setting of Psalm 23 brought some beautiful sounds from ladies’ voices while the rarely-heard Gebet was almost like a choral setting of a lieder ballad with its inventive piano accompaniment, dramatic moods and elaborate vocal lines.
Two contrasting works by Mendelssohn began the second part of the programme. Fiona Weakley showed both power and sensitivity as soprano soloist in the ever-popular Hear My Prayer while the rich harmonic textures of the unaccompanied Nunc Dimittis were sung most evocatively. Three further motets by Brahms followed, the choir responding to the challenging and advanced harmonic style of the third (Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein) with particular conviction. The final work, Brahms’s Geistliches Lied was almost an epilogue, gentle and heartfelt, with a quite ravishing Amen.
Ian Hare was, as ever, an excellent and unobtrusive accompanist on the organ (and on the piano in the Schubert works) and made his own contribution to the evening with two Brahms choral preludes for organ, including the exquisitely-phrased Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, and a lively performance of the majestic first movement of Mendelssohn’s Sonata No 3.
Sound the Trumpet
The ancient walls of Lanercost Priory were again host to a splendid musical event when The Wordsworth Singers, with their Director of Music, Edward Caswell and guest soloist, trumpeter Mark O’Keeffe, presented a remarkable programme of twentieth century music, with a final twist from the 16th century.
By any standards this was an ambitious programme that included works by Vaughan Williams, MacMillan (1959) and Taverner (1490-1545) and which at times provided severe challenges to choir and audience alike. With works which included Vaughan Williams Mass in G and Valiant for Truth, In splendoribus sanctorum by James MacMillan and Taverner’s epic antiphonal motet, O splendor gloriae, the singers beautifully, and with sensitivity and power, expressed the threads which bind the music of our own time with that of the past.
In contrast, the solo, unaccompanied trumpet in an ultra modern piece by Peter Maxwell Davies appeared, at first hearing, to be a mere selection of random notes. There was, however, no doubt about the virtuosity of O’Keeffe, whose pure and at times almost ear-splitting tone in the soaring acoustic of the Priory made exciting listening and contrasted well with the simple beauty of the Irish Folk Song, My Lagan Love that he played in the second half.
But this is a choir that has now ‘grown up’. Many a professional choir would have balked at tackling Amore langueo by Francis Pott (1957), an extraordinarily difficult piece, which they brought off with at least an outward show of assurance. Quite what the audience thought is impossible to say, although they clapped like heroes at the end of it.
Without doubt though, The Wordsworth Singers has become the premier choir of Cumbria. Their collective ability and the variety of artistic range is impressive, enabling them to delight, educate and move their audience in equal measure.
Earth’s Imagined Corners
With their rich sound, wide expressive range and thoughtful text presentation, the Wordsworth Singers are to be congratulated on their latest concert. In conjunction with director Edward Caswell, whose musical leadership the choir clearly respond to warmly, they presented a demanding and imaginative programme to the appreciative audience at St. John’s, Hensingham, Whitehaven.
The interval was flanked with two contrasting motets by James MacMillan. The vowel sounds the choir produced suited perfectly the atmospheric opening of Dominus dabit benignitatem, with melodic leaps arising with precision from a rich texture. After the interval, the demanding rhythms that give Factus est repente its sparkle were not always delivered with such precision, but the overall effect of this imaginative music was stunning.
The choral centrepieces of each half of the programme were two renaissance choral works from quite different traditions. Palestrina’s Stabat Mater in an arrangement by Richard Wagner (a musical partnership I wish the programme notes had been able to tell me more about), was characterised by some beautiful melodic phrasing in the inner parts. The setting of the psalm Domine exaudi orationem meam by Lassus contained some highly effective text presentation. The falling melody which accompanies the psalmist’s petition that he should not be abandoned “like those who go down to the pit” was brought out with clarity, and the insistence that his enemies should be cut off (disperdes) was genuinely insistent. Entries within the polyphonic texture were generally initiated crisply.
I wondered whether the contrasting styles between the Palestrina and the Lassus might have been better brought out by scattering the choir for the Palestrina.
The programme was topped and tailed with miniature gems from C H H Parry: his setting of Psalm 39, Lord let me know mine end; and the contracted but vast musical canvas inspired by Donne’s sonnet At the round earth’s imagined corners. The choir communicated the range of expression required of them. Nowhere was this more striking than in the disturbing rhythmic urgency of Donne’s list of death-inducing calamities (“war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies”, etc.), contrasted immediately with rich and gentle upper voice singing on the words, “Shall behold God and never taste death’s woe”.
It was a treat to hear cellist Emma Ferrand perform a Bach suite in each half of the concert. She brought a clear sense of baroque style to the first and the third suites. Especially impressive was the way Ferrand led us through the richly harmonic passage in the Prelude to the third suite, and the rhythmic poise that gave the Sarabande from the same suite such depth of purpose.
The Wordsworth Singers, under their Conductor Edward Caswell, presented an exciting and imaginative concert at St John’s Church, Hensingham. Framed by the last two of C H H Parry’s Songs of Farewell, there was music from the 16th century to the 21st. The two Parry motets are much the most difficult of the set to pull off. They demand passion and clarity. The singers were perhaps more concerned to get safely round the technical problems and to produce a blended sound rather than projecting the composer’s gloomy agony arising from the destruction and loss of the Great War. What was particularly effective, however, was the solemn, silent arrival of the choir in procession, leading straight into Lord, let me know mine end.
This was followed by Emma Ferrand playing movements from J S Bach’s First Cello Suite. She has doubtless played and taught these works many, many times, but she clearly never tires of them. The music came over with a mature freshness which was spellbinding. Later in the concert, she played movements from the Third Cello Suite. Again, passion and enthusiasm radiated and filled the church.
Then came Palestrina’s Stabat Mater, as arranged by Wagner. This is for double choir, with soloists for each choir. The textures were distinctly dense in places, and it only gradually became apparent to the listener how the music was structured. A clear spatial separation of the two choirs, with the soloists out in front, would have made the patterns much clearer. It was noticeable, however, that most of the soloists were able to blend readily with the choir in the tutti sections, and then switch again to their solos: not an easy feat!
On either side of the interval, we had two very new works by James MacMillan. The Singers rose to the occasion with enthusiasm, particularly in the second piece, the story of the first Whitsuntide. The audience response showed how well the choir projected this distinctly modern music.
Then came the most substantial piece of the second half: the fifth of the Penitential Psalms by Orlande de Lassus. These monumental settings were written about 1560, when it would have been the practice other than in the Sistine Chapel to vary the voicings of different verses, and use instruments in a variety of different ways. The Wordsworth Singers’ performance was of the Sistine Chapel variety, with little variation of timbre and texture between the verses. As at other points in the concert, more passion, presenting the words and their meanings more vividly, would have sustained this long piece better. It has to be said that even by this stage in the concert, the Singers were able to retain their intonation. Sliding gradually flatter is a common problem for choirs singing unaccompanied music. This was not a problem at Hensingham!
All in all, a well-conceived evening, with music from a variety of periods, and major instrumental contributions from Emma Ferrand. Congratulations to all concerned.
Earth’s Imagined Corners
‘I was glad when they said unto me…’ Let us go unto a concert given by the Wordsworth Singers on Saturday 31st January at St Michael’s Church, Stanwix and heard, amongst other things beautifully performed by the choir under the sure and understanding direction of Edward Caswell, two beautifully crafted anthems by Parry from the virtually unknown hinterland of works by that sadly undervalued composer, works entirely free from the saccharine sentimentality of much sacred music of his period.
The slow, reverent interpretation of Palestrina’s exquisite Stabat Mater suggested in Wagner’s arrangement was impressive but gave this performance an uncharacteristic heaviness not found in swifter continental readings which point the triple rhythm of the text bringing out the bumpy cross-rhythms and elegance of the music’s phrases. Perhaps one’s receptivity depends upon how one likes to be harrowed!
Lassus’s Domine Exaudi was superbly sung and one was swept along totally absorbed in the music’s gorgeous colour and masterly construction. Phrasing of the inside parts was excellent and well up to the usual standard of this very able choir, as was the handling of MacMillan’s two atmospheric and demanding motets which rely so heavily on accuracy and effect.
Emma Ferrand’s performance of Bach’s music for solo cello was gloriously warm, sensitive and totally captivating.
Last Saturday, 22 November, was the feast of St Cecilia, known since the sixteenth century as the patron of music and musicians. So it was only fitting that the Wordsworth Singers devoted much of their concert in St Martin’s Church, Bowness-on-Windermere, to works of Cecilian inspiration. The evening started off with a Mass in Honour of St Cecilia by the Lithuanian composer Kristina Vasiliauskaite, who was much involved with the choir’s tour in her homeland in 2006 and maintains strong links with them. It is a simple setting of the four shorter sections of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei), sung in Latin, probably new to most of those hearing it, much appreciated.
This was followed by two pieces by the twentieth-century English composer Herbert Howells – a psalm prelude for organ and A Hymn for St Cecilia (a setting of a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams, commissioned in 1960 to mark Howells’s membership of the Worshipful Company of Musicians).
Then we were treated to two delightful works for unaccompanied choir by Arnold Bax, both settings of medieval texts. I Sing of a Maiden is a fifteenth-century poem, and This Worldes Joie antedates Chaucer. The first is a relatively simple setting, the second more complex and difficult; both were splendidly sung.
After the interval we came to what I imagine was the most familiar work to the bulk of the audience – Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia. This is a setting of words by W H Auden that Britten composed at sea on his way back from the USA in 1942, beautiful words set beautifully to music, hauntingly performed by the Singers. Britten was born on St Cecilia’s Day 1913 — usually referred to as a great musical coincidence, but I prefer to think of it as the outcome of a deliberate conspiracy between Cecilia and Ben’s parents.
The programme came to a conclusion with two more works by Britten. The Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria is Britten’s only piece for solo organ, composed in 1946. And in Rejoice in the Lamb Britten sets sections of the long religious poem Jubilate Agno by the eighteenth-century Christopher Smart (who at the time of writing was an inmate in an asylum). The poem was not published until 1939, when the manuscript was discovered in Suffolk. Britten’s music captures Smart’s sense of wonder in a hymn of praise for all creation. A difficult work wonderfully sung.
All in all, a quite challenging but highly enjoyable evening’s music making. Just what we have come to expect from the Wordsworth Singers.