Ex Cathedra Christmas Music by Candlelight * * * * *
at St Paul’s, Hockley
Review by John Gough

The traditional Christmas sequence from Jeffrey Skidmore's Ex Cathedra in the Jewellery Quarter's atmospheric St Paul's Church once again took us beyond the habitual musical rituals of the season, stripping away the glitter and revealing the elusive, yet tangible meaning of Christmas.

This year’s programme was as wide-ranging as ever, the opening group itself a declaration of intent, with a new piece from America, a Neapolitan traditional song, Gaudete from 1582 and the English Sussex Carol offsetting each other in celebratory glory.

Telling juxtapositions abounded, with a reading of Longfellow’s Christmas Bells (written during the American Civil war) followed by Samuel Barber’s setting of the Agnus Dei which rose in an unbroken arc to its beautiful climax at the word "peace".

Of the new composers featured this year, most notable was the young American, Eric Whitacre who has created a great stir with his recent choral recordings. Sleep was a very beautiful and striking piece, drawing on the mystical moment between awareness and sleep, while Alec Roth’s Lullaby Carol whetted the appetite for the major new work from him and Vikram Seth commissioned by Ex Cathedra for next year.

"Birmingham" composers were also prominent, with Peter Wishart, David Wulstan and John Joubert, including his famous carol, Torches, while Kenneth Leighton’s A Christmas Caroll, proved a powerful extended setting of a Herrick poem, with a virtuoso and dramatic organ part, expertly delivered by Andrew Fletcher.

Once again, the combination of venue, performers, audience and occasion united to create a unique communion of concentration and atmosphere. The last word before the audience carol was left with Bach, his serene chorale from the Christmas Oratorio, bringing a touching end to a moving and stimulating programme.|