Ex Cathedra B minor Mass review


Ex Cathedra at Birmingham Town Hall ****
Sunday afternoon saw two examples of German culture cheek-by-jowl. Outside in Victoria Square was the tawdry, catchpenny Frankfurt Christmas Market drawing the crowds, the easily inebriated and the pickpockets. Within the adjacent Town Hall one of the world's greatest chamber choirs was performing one of Germany's, indeed the world's, greatest choral masterpieces.
Jeffrey Skidmore had selected Bach's Mass in B minor for this special concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of his founding of Ex Cathedra, and a fascinating programme-note traced the history of changing performing styles every time the choir has offered it over the years.
The performing style on this occasion could not have been bettered. The word "lightness" kept cropping up in my reviewing-notes, with a delicacy from the choristers which meant every note in Bach's running passage-work told with clarity, textures, even the most densely fugal, were separated out like a gossamer web -- the fantasia on the ancient plainchant which opens the Credo was a gripping case in point -- and phrasing was always shapely and pointed, as in the opening "Kyrie", which supplicated instead of hectored.
Lightness, too, was the characteristic of the marvellous Ex Cathedra Baroque Orchestra. The many instrumental obbligati were eloquently delivered, tones often pastel, and natural trumpets and shallow timpani played with an unforced charisma. Just one particular highlight was the "Quoniam", with its patrician noble natural horn and rolling bassoons supporting.
Lawrence White was soloist in that movement, a superb example of Skidmore's policy of drawing vocal soloists from within his choral forces. Another, among many, was Martha McLorinan with her sorrowing, Pieta-like "Agnus Dei".
Skidmore set swift, even tripping tempi, acknowledging the dance-background to so much of Bach's instrumental music. And therein lay my reservations about this technically brilliant performance.
I missed awe. grandeur, any sense of great depth of utterance. Gustav Holst had been overwhelmed when he heard the mighty Sanctus; here it skated blithely by. "Dona nobis pacem" should sound like the emotional destination of a great journey ultimately completed. And for all the accomplishment of Ex Cathedra's account under Skidmore of this towering monument to what Man can achieve, the lump didn't catch in the throat at the conclusion.
Christopher Morley

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