Alec Roth – Choral Prelude on ‘Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig’, Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig
JS Bach – St Matthew Passion
Jacob Handl – Ecce Quomodo Moritur Justus
J Crüger – Now thank we all our God
Easter performances by Ex Cathedra, under the baton of their musical director, Jeffery Skidmore have become a fixture of Birmingham’s musical calendar. There can be a danger, when a work is familiar and oft performed by a body of musicians, that a degree of staleness might develop. Not here. On the basis of Friday’s performance, it would seem that familiarity breeds depth and richness of understanding.
This is a many layered work where a narrative of intense drama is punctuated by moments of intense spiritual reflection. The main driving force behind the drama is the Evangelist, here superbly sung by tenor Bradley Smith who drew on a broad tonal palette to colour his interpretation, ranging from effortlessly floated high pianissimos through to full voiced declamatory exclamations. This was well paced and convincing musical story telling raised to a high level. Themba Mvula gave us a vocally calm and grounded Jesus characterised by presence and depth of emotion.
The chorus and other soloists serve both dramatic and reflective functions. In this respect the Ex Cathedra Choir totally captured the restrained but passionately meditative mood required by Bach’s Chorale settings and the violent, operatic vocal style called for in the ‘lynch mob’ choruses. Choir and soloists dovetailed beautifully in the movements where individual voices dialogue with chorus. There was a similarly wonderful sense of duet between solo singers and instrumentalists during the obligato arias, with a real feeling of shared expression. This meant that the solo instruments did not seem to be merely decorative, but formed an integral part of the musico-spiritual argument.
The choice to deliver a large-scale performance of the work, with augmented choir, two orchestras and a body of soloists provided a broad range of textural opportunities. These were fully exploited by the conductor to create dramatic pace and contrast. Jeffrey Skidmore’s reading was absorbing and compelling, and drew the disparate elements of the composition into a dynamic and fluid whole.
I was not fully convinced by the decision to frame the Passion in a liturgical context. The inclusion of additional music by Alec Roth, Handle and a final ‘congregational’ hymn did not seem to add anything to the performance, other than duration. That said, neither did they detract from what was a ravishing performance of this monumental work.
Ex Cathedra Choir and Baroque Orchestra
Ex Cathedra Senior Academy of Vocal Music
Conductor – Jeffrey Skidmore
Evangelist – Bradley Smith
Jesus – Themba Mvula
Pilate – Lawrence White
Margaret Lingas, Katie Trethewey, Martha McLorinan, Imogen Russell
Sacha Fullerton, James Robinson, Thomas Lowen.