Sacred & Profane
Having just returned from the York Early Music festival I was only too glad to get a top up from the Wordsworth Singers at St Bees Priory. In spite of Clément Janequin’s prolific output his name doesn’t appear as often as you would expect on programmes so a double dose in this performance was very welcome. Janequin was known for the popularity of his music in his own day and the first piece, Cries of Paris, launched us full-throated into the Paris streets with its bustle and activity with male and female voices playing off each other.
The words to the second piece Sweet Hawthorn Green describing the many different types of creatures living on it were so absorbing that the singing became a background to my own musings and I almost forgot to listen, a suitable experience for musical entertainment though. This composer is known for his mimicking of birds and animals and the Song of the Lark captured the chattering and scolding of the Lark rather well. Once again the words were fascinating, if a bit off the wall. The more conventional words of The Nightingale were carried by the soaring sopranos but the lower registers which are not given much prominence in the score could have done with a bit more synchronisation to create the repetitive “words” of the Nightingale.
Jehan Alain was the modern composer (1911-1940) of the organ piece played by the Wordsworth Singers’ director Mark Hindley erroneously believed to be based on a theme by Janequin. I have to admit a fault here and that is I find little organ music that is engaging however skilfully performed. There were some pleasurable moments in the second movement and in the last few bars where the upper registers had a bell-like clarity. The programme continued with more Janequin sounds with The Song of the Birds and The War. The former piece lacked the cohesion one normally expects from the Wordsworth Singers but it all came together with the lovely last verse on the Cuckoo. The War again took some time to come together and the plosives could have been stronger but when it did it was worth the wait and the final verse on Victory was indeed.
You can’t beat a good Kyrie to draw you into a Mass and so it was after the interval with the Missa de la Batalla Escoutez by Francisco Guerrero. There is no doubt that the religious authorities of the time would have thought of this luscious introduction as “iffy” for the sopranos carried us off leaving us unconcerned by the meaning of the words. The Gloria climbed eventually with the upper registers vying with the rich depth of the lower voices. The Mass finished as always with the Agnus Dei with those lucky sopranos soaring away above the pillow of the tenors and basses all coming together with a delightful finish.
I should add a compliment on the programme notes – quite the best I’ve read for a long time.
Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil (often incorrectly referred to as Vespers) is a cruel test for a choir. The fifteen sections encompass the texts of the Orthodox Easter service and last for an hour or longer, during which there is no respite for the unaccompanied singers. As well as needing great stamina, the vocal writing is frequently at the extremities of the range and the intensity of the composer’s vision makes few concessions to practicality. The Wordsworth Singers surmounted the enormous challenges of Rachmaninoff’s score with consummate ease: this was a performance which captured to perfection the vast emotional range of a work composed at white-heat in just two weeks. The immediacy of the composer’s response to the texts was communicated in the most spellbinding way. From the awesome power of the alleluias in Praise the name of the Lord to the spine-tingling slow descent of the basses to bottom Bb at the end of the Nunc dimittis, the dynamic range of the choir was breathtaking. Particular mention must be made of Anne-Marie Kerr whose rich contralto voice and perfect enunciation made it easy to imagine that she must be a native Russian! The performance opened with the intonation sung by the dynamic conductor of the Wordsworth Singers, Mark Hindley, and from the first note to the last it was clear that he was in complete control. Every phrase was beautifully shaped, intonation was perfect and tempi invariably felt exactly right.
How fortunate we are to have a choir of this calibre in Cumbria and what a privilege to be present at such an unforgettable performance of this masterpiece! The sizeable audience were fully aware that they had been at something very special.
On Saturday evening the eloquent, lofty, clean-lined beauty of the chapel of Austin Friars St Monica’s School filled with the rich sonorities of Rachmaninoff’s setting of the holy Liturgy of the Easter All-Night Vigil. Musical instrumental accompaniment being forbidden in Russian Orthodoxy, the clarity and tonal accuracy of the thirty-five voices of the Wordsworth Singers needed not only to be of the very highest quality, but also to blend and move in perfect ensemble through changes in colour, texture, range and dynamic, all the while presenting the lines of Liturgy for their own sake and not for the sake of a concert performance. So spell-binding was the quality of singing – including an extraordinarily beautiful alto solo in ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’ – that members of the audience were hardly mere recipients; rather, they were invited into a closer understanding of the way in which Rachmaninoff’s creativity, coupled with the ancient texts and prayers of the Orthodox tradition, can offer nourishment both rich and rare. Although the musical scope and complexity of the composition make considerable demands of all the singers – not least in managing the entire text in Russian – Mark Hindley’s sensitive yet unambiguous conducting was captivating for choir and audience alike. He drew out extraordinary richness in choral
breadth and volume (and, of course, serious basso depth) in, for example, the opening ‘Call to Worship’; yet he also crafted delicate moments of almost unbelievable transparency in which pianissimo suspensions resolved into almost whispered beauty as choir and conductor worked absolutely as one. On Saturday we witnessed something of what the psalmist must have meant by ‘the beauty of holiness’ – and perhaps, also, a touch of the holiness of beauty.
Ambleside, 3 March
No review available.
Dacre, 2 March
It was as always a pleasure to attend a concert by the Wordsworth Singers. Over the years they have demonstrated their proficiency in music of every period, and in this concert they went back to some of the earliest sacred music still surviving. Though about half of the Eton Choirbook is lost there are still over 40 pieces extant, dating to before the Reformation. On the evidence of this concert they deserve more frequent airing. In the late 15th century when much of this music was written, composers seemed less bound by the conventions of later Renaissance polyphony with which many of us are more familiar. The result is an apparent personal devotion and response to the words especially notable in the first two pieces. The peace and gentleness of Walter Lambe’s Nesciens Mater reflected the picture it presented of Mary nursing her baby. The setting of Ave Maria Mater Dei by William Cornysh, using only the three lower voices, was beautiful but sombre, emphasising not so much the praise of Mary as the hope that she would use her power to protect us from the destruction of sin. The rest of the music the choir performed consisted of three more extended pieces. The settings used partly the full choir and partly smaller groups of singers affording many variations in texture and allowing the Wordsworth’s fine array of soloists to have a role. This was particularly the case in the last piece, the Magnificat Regale by Robert Fayrfax. Throughout the performance the singers displayed their customary attention to excellent diction and faultless intonation.
Between the vocal items we enjoyed two sets of short pieces for the Troubadour harp, beautifully played by Jean Altshuler. This is a genre of music with which I was entirely unfamiliar, and I feel it would be a pleasure to hear more. The first set were songs which had been arranged for solo harp, and I would like to hear them performed by a singer with harp accompaniment. How many people learned at school that Richard the Lionheart was a keen musician, and how few of us have been able to hear one of his compositions!
St Patrick’s Church, Patterdale
29 September 2012
The Wordsworth Singers, conducted by Mark Hindley, presented an intriguing programme at Patterdale on Saturday 29th September, of choral settings of texts for the feast of Corpus Christi.
Unlike most high days in the Church’s calendar, the origins of Corpus Christi (‘the Body of Christ’) are not lost in antiquity; in fact it was invented by papal decree in the thirteenth century, with hymns, in celebration of the doctrine of transubstantiation, written by St Thomas Aquinas; and it was settings of these hymns that we heard here. Now it might be thought that an hour and a quarter of some notoriously thorny theology by mediaeval Christendom’s greatest intellect might make for rather dry fare. Not a bit of it: we were treated to a rich and varied feast.
Aquinas’ celebration of the institution of the Eucharist, removed from its austere origins in Holy Week, is by turns triumphant and meditative, and the singers were in fine voice to do justice to it all, from glorious Renaissance music for double choir by Victoria, Palestrina and Hassler to the concentrated radiance of modern French settings by Messiaen and Villette. The fervency of the opening and the closing Alleluias of Morales’ O sacrum convivium framed some beautifully poised quiet singing, especially from the sopranos; Bruckner’s Pange lingua was accorded unusually full dynamic contrast to thrilling, almost symphonic effect. The choir’s superb attention to the words was audible throughout, never more so than in Anthony Pitts’ Adoro te, the only English setting (alas that there was no space or time for Finzi’s Lo, the full final sacrifice); they seemed as undaunted by the exposed passages of the 15th-century style of Johannes Regis as by the dense harmonies of the late 20th-century Pierre Villette.
The choir has recorded the programme and by this showing the forthcoming CD should be a joy. “Lovely!” muttered the chap in the audience behind me at the end of Willaert’s radiant, sustained O salutaris, written for St Mark’s in Venice. And so it was.