November 18 2018
Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
Review: William Ruff
Musical ingenuity at its most mind-boggling and awe-inspiring
If 21st century western culture had different values, perhaps the Royal Concert Hall would have been encircled on Sunday night by international TV crews reporting on human ingenuity at its most mind-boggling. Instead miracles were allowed to happen calmly and quietly: no razzamatazz but plenty of awe and wonder.
Ex Cathedra, one of the UK’s leading choirs and Early Music ensembles, scaled one of the supreme pinnacles of the choral repertoire, Tallis’s 40-part motet Spem in Alium. The Elizabethans loved puzzles and Tallis provided the ultimate challenge for musical code-breakers, weaving number clues into his music in ways which could have been too-clever-by-half but which instead produce music which thrills and inspires.
Ex Cathedra became 8 choirs of 5 voices each, the sound moving from one to the other until at bar 40(!) Tallis allows all 40 voices to sound together for the first time. Conductor Jeffrey Skidmore moulded a wonderfully shaped, superbly controlled performance from his singers, dynamics minutely nuanced, tuning miraculously accurate and tone brightly burnished.
Ex Cathedra also celebrated the ingenuity of modern composers. In a more secular age one image which inspired general awe was that of the Earth as seen by the Apollo 8 crew. Alec Roth’s 40-part Earthrise is a deeply moving musical meditation on the beauty and meaning of that famous image of the cosmic jewel on which we live and whose future is so fragile. The intricacy of all those interconnected choral parts made a powerful and compelling musical statement: man’s drive to explore and exploit must be tempered by wisdom and understanding.
Gabriel Jackson’s Sanctum est verum lumen was another piece which offered the audience glimpses of the infinite, the choir evoking a sense of light, again through ingenious writing in 40 parts, from gentle luminosity to fiercely dazzling brightness.
Ex Cathedra, conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore