Review: Ex Cathedra, at The Oratory, Birmingham

Superlatives are not enough for this final concert in Ex Cathedra's 40th anniversary season. Jeffrey Skidmore and his choir surpassed themselves as ever, with a truly magnificent performance of Rachmaninoff's All-Night Vigil (Vespers).

Perfect twilight melted into soft candlelight for this late evening concert, doubtlessly challenging for the singers, but enchanting for their audience, bemused and awestruck by the soft colours of the Oratory's magnificent space.
 
How is it possible for a Birmingham choir to sound authentically Slavonic, we wondered?

Apparently perfectly possible, as the Oratory rang with the ancient church language. Translations were available but difficult to see in the subdued light, so the music said everything.

Published in 1915 this timeless music only occasionally hinted at the twentieth century, with fleeting glimpses of Mother Russia, haunting folk allusions and eerie rare snippets of dance rhythms catching the imagination.
 
The quality of all of the voices was truly east European, particularly mezzo soprano Lucy Ballard and Jeremy Budd's exquisite tenor; whether plaintive or imposing.

Balance was always of paramount importance with intricate part singing blending perfectly for the soloists. Imaginative writing provided inspired rocking accompaniments, beautifully-paced long phrases and throughout an exceptional range of dramatic dynamics.

One waited with baited breath for the anticipated rich velvet chords anchored with subterranean low B flats from basses, so rare in an English setting.

Unaccompanied throughout, the choir ranged from full joyous fortissimos – "Alleluias" to the fore – passing through a whole gamut of textures before finally melting to the merest whisper.
 
A total tour-de-force for all concerned.