Ex Cathedra review November 21


Birmingham Town Hall *****

Earlier this week, Ex Cathedra received welcome news that they had been granted an award from the Government's Culture Recovery Fund. On tonight's evidence, I can see why: here was a carefully curated selection of English polyphony performed to the highest of standards by thirteen Ex Cathedra singers, including some current and former members of their choral scholarship programme.

Billed as "Our First Love", this was a personal journey by conductor and founder of Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore, through the music of his and the choir's roots: the golden age of the English Renaissance.

The concert opener was Thomas Tallis's 'Lamentations of Jeremiah I' – the first item they sang in their inaugural concert of 1969 – its gently poised melodic lines emerging sensitively from the musical tapestry, fluidly paced by Skidmore throughout. Other items by Tallis included 'If ye love me', sung with affecting simplicity, and 'Why fum'th in fight' which has been made famous by Vaughan Williams as the inspiration for his 'Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis', although it's not often heard in its original choral form, sung twice here tonight – first as a solo, and then harmonised.

But this varied programme also included lesser-known works of the period, such as Thomas Tomkins's 'When David heard,' with its searing top line delivered by perfectly blended sopranos, and Edmund Hooper's 'Behold it is Christ', underpinned by a low-lying bass line and inventive harmonies.

Whilst the mood was suitably brightened by spirited performances of William Byrd's 'Sing Joyfully' and Peter Philips's 'Cantantibus organis' (an antiphon for St. Cecilia's Day), it was the slower, more introspective music that reached deep into the soul. One of the concert highlights was Byrd's gem of the period, 'Ave verum corpus', performed with an intimacy and sincerity that was exceptionally moving.

Byrd's 'Mass for Four Voices' featured a welcome variety of colour and precise diction, albeit that it was divided up into four chunks which arguably interrupted the flow somewhat. However, the final 'Agnus Dei', with its flowing lines skilfully woven into a seamless web by conductor and singers, brought this inspiring concert to an appropriately reflective close.

Anthony Bradbury

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