Good Friday St Matthew Passion, Ex Cathedra, Friday 7 April 2023, Symphony Hall, Birmingham. 5**** Reviewers – David Gray & Paul Gray

Good Friday St Matthew Passion, Ex Cathedra Choir & Baroque Orchestra, Ex Cathedra Senior Academy of Vocal Music, Gloucester Cathedral Youth Choir Friday – 15 April 2022, 5**** Reviewers – David Gray & Paul Gray (Birmingham)

* Alec Roth (b.1948) – Chorale Prelude on ‘Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig’; Motet –  Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig    *  JS Bach – St Matthew Passion  *  Sermon: Ben Okri – ON RACE  *  Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Von güten Machten  *  Bonhoeffer – On every new day  *  Jacob Handl – Ecce quomodo moritur justus  *  JS Bach – Chorale Prelude on Now thank we all our God; Chorale/Hymn (with the audience) Now thank we all our God (Crüger arr. Bach)

Easter performances of the St Matthew Passion by  Ex Cathedra, under the baton of their musical director, Jeffrey Skidmore have become a fixture of Birmingham’s musical calendar.  This year followed the same format as the performance last year, with the Passion framed in a ‘liturgical context’ by some modern chorale settings by Alec Roth, poetry by way of a Sermon and some final, traditional additions.  However, somehow, these performances always manage to find a sense of freshness, and locate something new and wonderful in the work.

As the Evangelist, Bradley Smith maintained momentum and immediacy.  His reading was intensly detailed, and operatic in its level of emotional committment. This is an impressive singer who combines beauty of tone with an effortless projection that filled the cavernous space of Symphony Hall while still managing to acheive a conversational and itimate delivery.  His narrative flowed naturally, and effortlessly in and out of the exchanges between characters in the drama, so that the pace and urgency of the story telling was never lost. This is a singer tom watch.

Themba Mvula characterised Jesus with a calmness, compassion and gravitas.  Possessed of a rich and radiant voice, he invested the final words with pathos and humanity.

The choral forces at play were large, but used sparingly and only brought to bear en masse during moments of dramatic and spiritual intensity.  As a result the feeling of the music being passed around the stage, from choir to choir, added to a feeling of movement and fluidity.  This, in turn, created a sense that we were experiencing something epic and occupying a larger canvas.

The choirs also managed to create a real sense of contrast between their more declamatory passages where, as a mob, they clamour for Jesus’ downfall and some searingly heartfelt renditions of the contemplative chorales that punctuate the piece.

Drawing soloists from the choir is, of course, precisely what Bach would have done himself.  Fortunately, Ex Cathedral is comprised of many fine singers, so the main solo parts were all delivered exceptionally well.  Excellent solo playing from the band ensured a wonderful sense of duet & dialogue between solo singers and instrumentalists during the obligato arias.  Here there was a real feeling of conversation, so that the solo instruments did not seem to be merely decorative but formed an integral part of the spiritual discussion.

Jeffrey Skidmore’s reading was, as always, absorbing and compelling and made perfect sense of the interplay between the dramatic and contemplative elements.

I am still not fully convinced by the decision to frame the Passion in a liturgical context.  Particularly, the final congrational hymn seemed to break the magical spell created by what had gone before.  This, however, is a minor niggle.  Once again here was a magnificent performance of this monumental work.

Ex Cathedra Choir and Baroque Orchestra  *  Ex Cathedra Senior Academy of Vocal Music  *  Conductor – Jeffrey Skidmore  *  Gloucester Cathedral Youth Choir

Soloists  Evangelist – Bradley Smith  *  Jesus – Themba Mvula  *  Pilate – Lawrence White  *  Margaret Lingas, Katie Trethewey, Gabriella Liandu, Martha McLorinan, Imogen Russell, Merce Bruguera Abello, James Robinson, Thomas Lowen.

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