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Review: An Elizabethan Christmas, Ex Cathedra Consort at Birmingham Town Hall

Christopher Morley reviews An Elizabethan Christmas, Ex Cathedra Consort at Birmingham Town Hall.

An Elizabethan Christmas, Ex Cathedra Consort at Birmingham Town Hall
****

From the Wednesday to the Saturday before Christmas, Ex Cathedra will be cosying the box pews of St Paul’s in the Jewellery Quarter for their much-loved presentation of Christmas Music by Candlelight.

Last Sunday, though, its handpicked consort of young voices delivered a well-constructed programme of some of our greatest composers from the Elizabethan period, sacred and seasonal offerings interspersed with well-turned offerings from the fascinating fretwork.

These strings combined effectively with the singers (I do wish director Jeffrey Skidmore would drop the habit of not naming his wonderful vocal soloists - collective anonymity can go too far), but left me wondering whether we should be allowed into the intimate communings of music for viol consort alone, written for the pleasure of the players, no audience intended. So Byrd’s Fantasia two in one, sometimes surprisingly dance-like and folky, did eventually lose its attraction for some of us merely listening.

This formed part of a first half given over entirely to music by this great composer who trod a deadly tightrope between the Protestant court and his own banned Catholicism. His Mass for Four Voices interleaved with consort songs, everything delivered at the higher pitch the most recent research advocates.

The new departure held no terrors for the singers, after the tiniest slackness of intonation in some of the entries in the opening “O Lord, make thy servant Elizabeth”. Under Skidmore’s coaxing shaping, voices were wonderfully balanced and blended, with the occasional grittiness of basses giving an appropriate edge to the timbres.

Particularly moving was Byrd’s wonderful Ave Verum Corpus, rapt, bravely slow, and totally involving.

Byrd was joined in the second half by his great contemporaries Thomas Tallis and Orlando Gibbons for a sequence of settings largely now in English. Unfortunately a bug I’d been fighting off all weekend eventually got the better of me, and I had to miss this.

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