The Wordsworths are on a roll, gathering momentum with each concert and growing as an ensemble, finding greater homogeneity of sound and developing at the same time a unique voice. The energy which went into the learning of Bach’s B Minor Mass recently has preserved itself in the communication of the reflective, intimate settings which made up the characteristically wide-ranging programme of this latest concert, framing three modern composers with works by established early modern writers.
The act of setting words to music has been such a constant of our culture that we seldom if ever question the wisdom of doing it: yet perhaps there is some poetry so good, so musically expressive in its own right, that to add music is superfluous and otiose (there is some mileage in Paul Valéry’s assertion: “Hearing verse set to music is like looking at a painting through a stained-glass window”). It is with this in mind that one could question the young Holst’s choice of lyrics in his Five Part Songs (op 12) with which the Wordsworths started the concert. Musically seductive and with evident promise, it was paradoxically the choir’s expertise at word painting and clarity of diction which pointed up, to this listener at least, the occasional disconnect between music and lyric, notably in the Christina Rossetti setting in which the rhythm and morbid fascinations of the text were subjugated to beauty of musical line – a fine disconnect perhaps, but a real one.
No such uncertainty in the next work, Tavener’s Love bade me welcome, in which the choir demonstrated their now accustomed sensitivity to mood and nuance by sitting back and letting the work take control, simply transmitting Herbert’s text without superfluity of expression by means of Tavener’s assured setting.
The third work in the programme was played by guest cellist Martin Johnson, much applauded soloist and principal cello of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Dublin, accompanied deftly by Mark Hindley. Holst’s Invocation is a glorious shimmering maze of late-romantic, early modern English impressionism (to conflate at least three genres) and it was moving and illuminating to hear it in this context, the almost visible filigree of the music soaring up and around the arches of the priory.
The choir joined Martin Johnson for the final work in the first half, Tavener’s simply stunning and deservedly popular Svyati, a setting for cello and chorus of a short Slavonic text from the eastern Orthodox liturgy. This piece is far more than a composer’s hanging music on a convenient lyrical hook, but a sublime commentary and conversation between equals arrived at through dedication and meditation.
Simple, direct and compelling, this required great control from the choir, technically (basses for example on a bottom “E” for nearly the entire work), emotionally and intellectually. Mark Hindley directed with his usual assurance, never letting the music out of his grasp, yet always granting the freedom of expression vital and integral to this piece.
Straight after the interval we heard Cecilia McDowall’s Night Flight, three settings for cello and chorus of poems by Sheila Bryer, and written to mark the centenary of the first woman to fly across the English Channel. This was by turns ravishing and witty, with an inspired new approach to word painting in the description of a crow landing on a windy day. The sudden key change at the end of the third setting illuminated rather than obscured the “vast medieval heaven” of the text, and the piece received a deservedly enthusiastic welcome from the large audience.
This was followed by Delius’s short, complex Midsummer Song, based on an anonymous verse (probably by the composer) imagining play and laughter in the woods on midsummer day. The choir seemed to enjoy it too.
Martin and Mark then played a far more serious piece, Delius’s Romance for cello and piano, which despite its somewhat lightweight appellation takes the form of a distinctly brooding and passionate emotional journey, moving from darkness to ecstasy, vividly portrayed by the two players.
The final item consisted of Five English Folksongs in the arrangements by the genre-crossing composer Daryl Runswick. These are not settings in the sense of those by Holst, say, or Vaughan Williams, but rather commentaries on the texts, their purpose being to tell the story, illuminate and entertain – which they did to great effect, the choir maintaining the same energy and purpose as at the start. Deservedly long and enthusiastic applause saluted the performers in a thoroughly rewarding evening, before Martin Johnson concluded for us with a simple, delicately moving piece by, in his words: “My teacher’s teacher”, Pablo Casals. Perfect.
Mass in B Minor
What a wonderful celebration of this outstanding choir’s 20th Anniversary! The Wordsworth Singers’ performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s great B minor Mass, without doubt one of the greatest and most satisfying choral works ever written, was magnificent, to say the least.
While the spring evening sunshine flooded St John’s Church with gloriously warm light, the radiance of Bach’s glorious music filled it with wonderful choral and orchestral sounds from the very first bar of the music.
The positioning of the choir on and immediately behind the chancel steps above the orchestra gave immediacy to their singing and, by slightly reducing the reverberation often noticeable when singing further back in the chancel, allowed the words to be projected clearly.
Many sublime moments of exquisite beauty were experienced as the various sections of Bach’s great masterpiece unfolded over and around the capacity audience.The Adderbury Ensemble, made up of principal players from several leading orchestras, accompanied the choir throughout the performance with great accuracy, musicality and sensitivity, ranging from the quietest solo arias to full choruses at maximum volume. Perhaps the greatest emotional highlights of the concert were the opening and closing sections of the Gloria and the mighty Sanctus, in which the trumpets and timpani featured
The five soloists, Julie Leavett (soprano), Fiona Weakley (soprano), Anne-Marie Kerr (alto), Dominic Bevan (tenor) and Jonathan Millican (bass), performed their solos with admirable clarity and expression.
Throughout the entire work, the conductor, Mark Hindley, directed the choir and orchestra with exemplary precision and maintained an excellent rapport with all performers, which allowed everyone in the building to enjoy this marvellous evening of music making.
Songs of Farewell
This was the first concert I have attended of the Wordsworth Singers as a member of the audience. I was not disappointed. The sense of ensemble in the choir and the sensitivity of the performance were impressive and we were treated to an afternoon of delightful music appropriate for the more reflective season of Lent.
The theme and title of the concert, ‘Songs of Farewell’, ran through all the choral pieces and even the first set of piano pieces. It began with Brahms Fünf Gesänge Op104 which was performed with the intensity required for this work. The choir’s diction was faultless and there were some beautifully shaped phrases in the quieter movements which were quietly passionate while being magnificently controlled. In the more lively movements the Wordsworth Singers provided a great sense of cohesive attack and vigour.
The ‘Songs of Farewell’ theme continued with the first set of three piano pieces from Klavierstücke Op118 by Brahms. They were played by Leah Nicholson, a very talented young pianist from the northern reaches of Cumbria, currently studying at Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester. She was very warmly received by the audience. Leah played with a touching sensitivity while at the same time being able to provide a sense of power when the music demanded it.
Jonathan Dove’s Into thy Hands was refreshingly different to the other works. Particularly of note was the light touch given to the ostinato bass towards the end of the piece which provided a beautiful foundation for other parts to bring the piece to a gentle end. The first half closed with the rich harmonies of the double choir in Bring us, O Lord God by William Harris.
After the interval we enjoyed Parry’s Songs of Farewell; sublime music designed to carry the listener to another place. After four of the six songs we enjoyed another piano interlude again by Brahms; his Rhapsody Op79, No 1, again played by Leah with a great intensity and passion.
Parry’s final two songs demand a great deal of the singers, which they readily gave. At the end of the last, there was an intense silence before the applause began – a reflection perhaps of a reluctance to return from the sublime place to which all the performers had taken us in an afternoon of wonderful music.
Then, to paraphrase the final words of Parry’s last song we all ‘went hence and were no more seen’.
O Miracle of Love
The many loyal followers of the Wordsworth Singers have come to expect programmes full of interest and innovative ideas, and once again they were not disappointed. The audience which left the concert in Austin Friars’ School last Saturday had been treated to a delightful evening of interesting and beautiful music.
The title of the concert, ‘Miracle of Love’, was taken from the words of one of the items in the second half of the programme, a set of songs in the style of madrigals by the modern American composer Morten Lauridsen. They followed a setting of the mass, Missa ‘In illo tempore’ by one of the greatest madrigal composers of all time, Monteverdi. The musical themes of the mass were drawn from a motet In illo tempore loquente Jesu by an earlier composer, Nicolas Gombert. Both of these composers set their texts expertly and with great beauty, with Monteverdi in particular proving a feast of varying textures and some quite startling key changes to reflect the changing themes of the mass.
The madrigal-like Fire Songs by Lauridsen were extremely exciting to listen to. He is a master of the use of dissonance and discord without ever descending into harshness. His settings of these Italian Renaissance poems aptly reflected their theme, which portrayed the writers as being overwhelmed by passion which seemed to bring them much more pain than pleasure. The fire of love did not light them up with joy but burnt them in agony and left them ultimately in despair. Possibly we should look back at the words of the brief opening motet and conclude that only reliance on the word of God brings true blessing and lasting happiness.
Between the songs we were treated to some Renaissance music for lute, played by Eric Thomas. The pieces, some familiar and some much less so, were written as if meant to be sung and so felt integral to the programme, while providing a gentle contrast with the firiness of Lauridsen’s songs.
The only small disappointment was that the Wordsworth Singers had suffered some last minute illnesses which had reduced their numbers, causing an occasional imbalance between the parts. They dealt expertly with this problem and it could not detract from the overall enjoyment gained from such an intelligently constructed and performed programme.
The Wordsworth Singers’ concert entitled O Miracle of Love was pure delight. From a chilly November evening outside, the audience was transported into the warmth and light of St George’s Church in Kendal, as darkness fell.
The slightly depleted choir was nonetheless still well balanced and their positioning around the chancel step meant that their excellent vocal sound was clearly projected into the generous acoustic of the nave.
The interesting and well balanced programme opened with the motet In illo tempore loquente Jesu by Nicolas Gombert, dating from 1539. From the beginning, the choir sang the beautifully woven polyphonic lines clearly and with suitably sympathetic treatment of the words taken from St Luke’s Gospel.
The second work, the Mass setting In illo tempore by Claudio Monteverdi, was much more substantial, the performance time being about four times that of Gombert’s motet. Written about seventy years later, this setting of the Mass uses no less than ten of Gombert’s themes and is presented with a lighter balance of voices (more upper voice parts than lower), giving a different texture to the music. It is full of interesting and sometimes unexpected harmonies and the five sections were appropriately paced to allow both the emotions and words to come across clearly.
After the interval, the audience were, in complete contrast, treated to the American composer Morten Lauridsen’s Madrigali: Six ‘Fire Songs’, dating from 1987. These compositions combine Italian Renaissance poetry with strikingly modern harmonies, using carefully constructed dissonant chords right from the opening ‘Fire-Chord’. Each of the six settings contained interesting and varied twists and turns of melodies and harmonies, ranging from the light and springy Amor, io sento to the anguished Io piango. The choir coped admirably with the many challenges of these varied pieces.
The madrigals were cleverly divided into three pairs with, by complete contrast, two groups of three pieces played by the distinguished lutenist, Eric Thomas. These works provided gentle interludes of great tranquillity between the fiery madrigals. Three sublime compositions (Tochata and two Fantasias) by Francesco da Milano were in contrapuntal style, somewhat similar in character to the vocal works heard earlier in the concert. The second set, The Frogg Galliard by John Dowland, a Scottish song (Anon) and a Fantasia by Gregorio Huet presented us with a variety of idiomatic lute writing, played with exquisite beauty by the guest soloist.
Overall, we were presented with two hours of sublime music, extremely ably directed by Mark Hindley.