Listen to a group performing for the first time amid the glittering splendours of the Birmingham Oratory and you will almost certainly hear a struggle with its idiosyncratic acoustic - all that marble, all that loftiness, all those alcoves - which does the music no favours at all.
But to Jeffrey Skidmore and his Ex Cathedra the Oratory has been virtually a second home for decades, and far from merely getting on top of its sonic vagaries, they actually know how to exploit them to telling effect.
This was certainly the case on Saturday, when we marvelled at yet another of Skidmore’s imaginatively-constructed programmes. In keeping with Remembrance tide, we were offered musical settings of liturgical reflections upon death, the first half interweaving a late Renaissance Portuguese masterpiece with a Scottish one composed as recently as five years ago, the second a solemn unfolding of some of the most mannerist examples of the early baroque.
The slimmed-down mere 10 voices of the Ex Cathedra Consort projected a huge range of timbre, colour and dynamics, not only in the searing textures of James MacMillan’s Tenebrae Responses but also in the radiant consolatory cascades of the Missa Pro Defunctis by Duarte Lobo, the works dovetailing into each other with exemplary intonation, and ending with the dignified withdrawal through the church of a solo soprano, her keening, almost oriental lament disappearing out of hearing much in the way Holst’s Neptune does.
Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsories for Holy Saturday are built upon acute response to word-painting, mirrored this evening by the lively response of Skidmore’s singers. At times we almost felt thrown four centuries forward into MacMillanland, but here was a case of more amounting to less. Hearing this disturbing music all in one go resulted in an ironing-out of the shock effects. Heresy, even daring to think the word “bland”.