Ex Cathedra * * * *
at Birmingham Oratory
Review by Maggie Cotton
 
A beautiful venue sadly does not necessarily fulfil everyone's aural expectations, and with the best will in the world I found much to frustrate in Ex Cathedra's captivating Splendour of Venice. Not the impeccable voices, or playing from His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts, but the basic logistics of clarity from the musicians for the congregation.

Birmingham's magnificent Oratory did its best to stage collections of music originally written for the grandeur of massive churches of Venice in the 16th - 17th centuries, but would have benefited from wider physical dimensions and spacing for all musicians.

One fully admires Jeffrey Skidmore's exceptional care in researching Giovanni Gabrieli's innovative Sacred Symphonies and no doubt from his standpoint as conductor, vocal parts in particular would be truly poly-phonic, contrasting textures accessible, with solos highlighted and vivid full choruses.

However for listeners, glorious full rich sound was not enough, as proportions and counterpoints blurred - soaring into the magnificent dome - text being mostly incomprehensible apart for familiar sections from the Mass, for instance Sanctus, which grew with arching phrases from whispering sonorities culminating in a bloom of full sound which was ever a delight.

Three Monteverdi works were included, colour added from a pure soprano solo in his Ure me, Domine. The visually impressive theorbo was, for the most part inaudible, except when used as a gentle underlying continuo for solo voices in Gabrieli's magical In ecclesiis. Time changes were skilfully executed as were overall shifts of pace neatly addressed in the purely instrumental inclusions.

Particular contrasts were a delight when sonorous sagbuts firmly anchored virtuoso intricacies from cornetts. Their poignant melting harmonies were perfect for this space with lovely balance between small instrumental groups and singers.