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