Ex Cathedra at Codsall Community Arts Festival by Richard Bratby

Maybe I’ve been unlucky, but when I sit down to hear a newly-written piece of sacred choral music, I’m usually bracing myself to ask one basic question: imitation John Rutter or imitation John Tavener? Good news: Nimrod Borenstein’s And There Was Light was nothing like either.

Borenstein takes as his text the opening words of the Book of Genesis, and he promptly subverts every preconception that this creates. “Void” is a chiming ostinato for the male singers: “Form” gathers in great curves of sound on the women’s voices. A hint of a rhythm gets going: musical lines glow, blossom and coalesce. Before the performance, Borenstein explained that for him, “contrast creates structure”. And there were plenty of contrasts with which he could make good on that promise: day and night, light and dark; droll, rhythmic basses and soaring, luminous sopranos.

The result is an utterly distinctive a capella motet that’s quirky, engaging, and (where it counts) beautiful. If there’s any justice, it’ll catch on. So hats off to Codsall Community Arts Festival for commissioning it – a sort of 40th birthday present from this enterprising festival to itself – and to Ex Cathedra and its conductor Jeffrey Skidmore for premiering it with all their accustomed commitment and affection.

It sat, not entirely inappropriately, amongst a series of sacred madrigals by Monteverdi and a pair of early a capella proto-oratorios by Charpentier and Carissimi. In the intimate, not particularly florid acoustic of St Nicholas’s Church they came across with considerable detail and warmth, culminating in a vibrantly dramatic account of Carissimi’s Jephte in which Katie Trethewey’s radiant, vividly-characterised solos as Jephte’s unhappy daughter came very close to stealing the show.

Richard Bratby

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