Ex Cathedra * * * *
at Birmingham Town Hall
Reviewed by Christopher Morley.
Jeffrey Skidmore's knack for imaginative programming has not diminished over the near-40 years since he founded Ex Cathedra, the crack chamber choir which performs so committedly under his direction.
Sunday's Christmas concert-with-a-difference brought to the Town Hall's perfect setting a sequence of baroque seasonal music from a range of European countries, with the main offering the evocative Messe de Minuit by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.
Almost like a Renaissance "paraphrase" Mass, where a pre-existing melody served as the basis for the musical development, Charpentier here utilises traditional French carols, and it was a brilliant idea of Skidmore's to have his choristers, whether individually or in collective unison, precede the Mass movements with the charming little gems which form their structure.
Supported by a neat, pert little instrumental ensemble, Ex Cathedra responded trippingly to the music's characteristic dance-rhythms, their properly (but never ostentatiously) Gallicised Latin pronunciation adding point to the accentuation, and their trills at cadences delivered naturally and decisively.
Bouzignac's dramatic scena-like Noe Pastores completed the French part of the evening, before Gibbons's See, the Word is Incarnate, lines overlapping mellifluously, diction crisp, Monteverdi's ineffable Ave Maris Stella, and an ending in Germany.
Schutz's Ehre sei Gott was an appropriately joyous prelude to Buxtehude's remarkably proto-romantic setting of In Dulci Jubilo, light delivery from Ex Cathedra responsive to its pastel colourings and ultimately twilit ending (plus the assistance of Town Hall's resident lighting gremlin).
Finally came the biggie, J.S. Bach's great double-choir motet Singet dem Herrn. After such a taxing evening the choristers still delivered light, dancing articulation, pingingly percussive where appropriate, and the textures glittered throughout. The final bars glowed with lilting exultation, and the famous chorale from the Christmas Oratorio was a soothing encore.