Ex Cathedra at Birmingham Town Hall ****

In this thoughtful programme Ex Cathedra went beyond mere remembrance this Armistice-tide and instead chose works railing against torture, repression and soulless militarism, two of them world premieres.

Jeffrey Skidmore, now an august, avuncular presence seated on his conductor’s chair, drew from his choristers singing of immense clarity and engagement, not least in James MacMillan’s Cantos Sagrados which opened the afternoon’s proceedings. Urgent, spitfire diction from the chorus, tumbling with anger (basses particularly fired up), eventually gave way to visionary calm, delivered with sustained, quiet intensity, before that spitfire diction returned as onomatopoeia whilst a prisoner fell victim to a gimcrack firing-squad. Jonathan Hope contributed a sensitive organ commentary, and choral intonation was superb.

As it was in the concluding offering, Alec Roth’s Peace of the Night, premiered here as part of an ongoing project for a series of motets on the texts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to be brought together in Leipzig in 2025, on the 80th anniversary of his execution in a Nazi concentration camp. Together a solo vocal quintet and the larger choral ensemble ruminate in English and German on texts declaring absolute faith in God, but the monochrome textures do prolong suspicions that the piece outstays its welcome.

The other premiere was Sally Beamish’s A Knock on the Door, a graphic denunciation of torture and its effect on both victim and perpetrator. Setting a hard-hitting text by Peter Thomson, Beamish pits two choirs against each other (they physically exchange positions just before the end), with a virtuoso electronic keyboard part (Jonathan French), filmic percussion (Simone Rebello), and pre-recorded heavy metal conveying sleep-deprivation.

And this is the work’s weakness, succumbing too literally to the opportunities suggested by the libretto. While there are certainly subtleties (a delicious waltz interlude, an ironic samba), there are also stretches where the response seems almost knee-jerk in its outrage.

The oldest work in the programme proved in fact the most rewarding, John Joubert’s South of the Line, Ex Cathedra’s first-ever commission, and premiered by them in 1986, and subsequently recorded. These five settings of Thomas Hardy’s Boer War poems drew music of an overwhelming response from this South African-born composer, its bitterness and sardonicism never distorting the elegance and directness of its construction.

Under Skidmore chorus, pianists Jonathan French and Helen Swift, with Simone Rebello’s magisterial percussionist colleagues, delivered an account of this powerful score which really spoke to the heart. Outside we could just hear the strains of the Frankfurt Christmas Market in Victoria Square, which, for all its irritations, today seemed a symbol of peace and unification.

Christopher Morley

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