Ex Cathedtra recreates Beethoven's funeral


Symphony Hall, Birmingham *****

The irony is overwhelming. When Mozart died in Vienna in 1791 he was given a pauper's burial. When Beethoven died in the same city 36 years later, more than 25,000 people turned out in the same city for his obsequies, the Requiem Mozart had struggled on his deathbed to complete being the centrepiece of proceedings.
Ex Cathedra's triumphant post-lockdown return to a packed and appreciative Symphony Hall audience on Sunday was a fascinating reconstruction of the music performed at Beethoven's funeral. Movement of the musicians onto the stage was imaginatively choreographed, a passing-bell tolling while a crucifix-bearer led in the next group to be introduced (difficult not to think of Ingmar Bergman's film The Seventh Seal).
Recently-passed opera director Sir Graham Vick, to whose memory this concert was dedicated, would have appreciated this novel, inclusive approach, with the opening half bringing to life the German Psalms by Beethoven and others sonorously interleaved with the composer's solemn Equali for Four Trombones (Adrian France presiding over the remarkable Concert Trombone Quartette).
Ceremonial and musical links flowed with dignity under Jeffrey Skidmore's discreet direction, and we also heard a magnificent rendering of the great Austrian actor Franz Grillparzer's Oration, delivered so tellingly by an unnamed soloist from the choir.
Then came Mozart's Requiem, totally unsentimental, lightly phrased, with beautifully balanced choral tone and clarity of leading lines shrewdly shaped by Skidmore. The tiny orchestra sounded puny initially, but the ear rapidly adjusted to appreciate the subtle colouring and indeed strength of the playing, and for once we could understand why the trombone doubling of the choral parts in counterpoint was really so crucial.
Though that particular aspect of the performance was my personal highlight, so was the beautifully blended and attuned solo quartet: Katie Trethewey, Martha McLorinan, James Robinson and Lawrence White never obtruded in the sheer beauty of this otherworldly writing. Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus brought us even closer to Heaven.
Christopher Morley

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