2021-22 Season Concerts

St Anne’s Church, Ings

Mark Hindley brought his Wordsworth Singers to the tiny church at Ings.  This is a little church with a big heart.  It doesn’t offer a great mass of audience seating but those who do manage to get in find themselves in a warm, friendly and intimate concert space the acoustics of which are ideal for an a capella group.  It may lack the huge space and the ‘sound of stone’ for which much of the music of the 17th century was written, but for modern concert performance purposes it also lacks the excessive reverberation and echo that are so often a feature of the larger spaces and which can be difficult for audience and performers alike.  It allows expert ensembles such as The Wordsworth Singers to perform with great clarity the complicated rhythmic structures of some of the music of this period; detail which is so often lost in a larger acoustic. 

Mark Hindley himself conducted throughout with an obvious absorption in the music and a confidence in his singers which in its turn was reflected in the enjoyment of the singers in what they were doing and their own confidence in performance.  Several of the pieces Mark conducted from the keyboard of a chamber organ, relying on the singers to respond to head movements and no doubt facial expressions (unseen by the audience of course!) which they did superbly well.  The 24 singers of this particular small ensemble, despite their numerical imbalance (17 women and 7 men), produced a well-balanced and robust sound that was thoroughly enjoyed by all present.

To put Heinrich Schütz in context it is interesting to note that he was born in 1585, just 100 years before Bach.  He lived, for those early times, a very long life of 86 years, dying 350 years ago in 1672 and it would still be another dozen or more years before Bach was born.  The programme for this concert explored just a few examples out of the colossal list of works by Schütz, together with some of his contemporaries.

In the first half we heard five pieces by Schütz and two by his friend Johann Hermann Schein.  Schein was obviously much influenced by Schütz.  So much so that one can detect Schütz ‘fingerprints’ in many parts of Schein’s work.  It’s hard to tell which is which sometimes.  By way of contrast in the middle of the first half we had a soprano duet by the only English composer of the evening.  A setting of Duo Seraphim by Richard Dering with many echoes of the tenor duet in the Monteverdi Vespers using the same text.  This piece was beautifully sung by Ann Bruce and Fiona Weakley; an extremely well-matched and well-balanced performance.

All the ensemble pieces by Schütz and Schein were performed with The Wordsworth Singers’ superb expertise and sense of style.  They handled the many decorative flourishes and embellishments with great clarity.  Music of this period is not over-endowed with original indications of dynamic variation, to say the least.  For modern concert performance some rhythmic and dynamic variation is needed and it is up to the performers to provide it as they think fit.  In some performances all too often one is presented with a solid mezzo-forte throughout.  Not so here.  Mark Hindley found many opportunities for quiet and delicate singing.  In the original score there will be little or nothing from Schütz himself to help.  Mark and the choir handled all the changes of rhythm, time signature and tempo with great skill.

The second half consisted of one single work by the Italian composer Gregorio Allegri.  Many people will have heard his Miserere, a setting of Psalm 51, with its high Cs (which Allegri never wrote), and many of those people will be unaware of any other work by Allegri.  This is a full Mass setting, one of five masses by this composer.  No-one knows why he based it on a secular madrigal, but it is a firmly liturgical work of the traditional six sections and sung, like everything else in this superb evening of 17th century choral music, with understanding, clarity, rhythmic variety and accuracy.

What a delightful evening.

Jolyon Dodgson

St John’s Church, Keswick

After an enforced absence of almost two years, due to Covid-19, the Wordsworth Singers made a very welcome and impressive return to the concert platform last Saturday at St. John’s Church in Keswick. Though we might have expected the director, Mark Hindley, to ease his 30 singers in gently he challenged them with a programme of entirely unaccompanied, extremely complex music of the sixteenth and late nineteenth and early 20th century, some of it being in as many as eight parts. This was music that only the best of our cathedral and collegiate choirs would tackle and it was a great privilege for those in the audience to hear this music performed live by such an accomplished choir.

It is not without justification that the Elizabethan Renaissance is often referred to as the Golden age of English music and the first half of the concert was devoted to words by two composers of this period, William Byrd and Robert White.  Byrd’s Laudibus in sanctis and Haec dies contain many of the elements of his complicated polyphonic vocal lines, tricky rhythms and changes of metre. The Wordsworth Singers managed all of this with assurance but what for me was the highlight of these three pieces was the almost magical performance of Byrd’s Ave verum corpus; beautifully phrased and with such an evenness of tone one could wallow in the sheer beauty of the sound. Although born around the same time as Byrd, Robert White died of the plague 49 years before his more illustrious contemporary and there is therefore a different feel to his music. The Lamentations of Jeremiah are a tour de force for any choir. The whole work lasts over 20 minutes during which the singers must sustain long unaccompanied vocal lines, often using a single vowel sound for many bars. Tuning, maintaining concentration and balance in this music is extremely difficult and it was very impressive hearing the Wordsworth Singers rise to this challenge with such conviction.

In the second half of the concert we jumped from the 16th to the late 19th century to the music of Stanford and Parry. The Three Latin Motets written for Alan Gray at Trinity College are frequently performed anthems in Cathedrals but it was a real joy to hear them as a group.  All are very different and give scope for the musical director to shape the music as they wish. The rich sonority of Justorum animae gave way to the exciting eight part Coelos ascendit and was followed by the almost ethereal Beati quorum via. The choir were obviously back in their comfort zone and displayed all the choral expertise which makes them such a fine group. Stanford’s double-choir Latin Magnificat written for his friend C.H.H. Parry has all the hall-marks of a Bach motet, in fact one could call it a pastiche. This was given an exuberant and thrilling performance with sparkling clarity from the voices. This wonderful concert was brought to a fitting close with Stanford’s composition pupil Gustav Holst’s eight part Latin Nunc Dimittis, another memorable performance with a rich variety of choral textures.

The obvious joy of the singers to be able to sing again after such a long time was palpable and the audience responded with equally enthusiastic applause.

John Cooper Green

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