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Music review: the choir Ex Cathedra in Birmingham Cathedral

29 March 2018

Roderic Dunnett takes a Lenten journey back to the early Baroque


IN THE early 17th century in Europe, opera emerged as a fully-fledged genre. Monteverdi and a clutch of others composed stage works, which were initially based on Greek myth, secular in subject, and somewhat naïve in concept. But, by the 1640s, Monteverdi’s mature works, aided by their brilliantly characterised libretti, demonstrated the genre’s potential.

The latest concert by the choir Ex Cathedra in Birmingham Cathedral focused on the emergence of a different, but no less significant, mode of presentation. To all intents and purposes, the music presented here in at least three works — the term suggested is “spiritual theatre” — amounted to Italianate forerunners of the sacred oratorio brought to full fruition in London by Handel.

Ex Cathedra are absolute masters of the early Baroque. The opening work was by Giovanni Anerio, who flourished in Rome in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Setting a passage from Genesis, the work tells in simple devotional manner the story of Abraham and Isaac. Five characters recount it: the father and son protagonists; God himself; a narrator or “witness” (actually a chorus); and the Angel who instructs Abraham to “put away the knife”, since God, satisfied with his unswerving loyalty, has relented on his previous demand.

Interspersed are the choruses, initially narrating, but latterly rejoicing in the happy outcome of the frightful story and praying that divine intercession will always prevail: “You who today are enjoying the delights of heaven, intercede for us, so that obedient and patient we may one day rejoice in those eternal true beauties of God.”

This last choral passage is a joyous and uplifting fusion of the enraptured and the blissfully serene. The solos, especially the baritone Lawrence White in the role of God, were sung with melting beauty and insight; the final chorus once again exemplified the wonderful blend that Jeffrey Skidmore draws from Ex Cathedra, besides beautifully encap­sulating the dignity and winsomeness of this elegant work.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier lived until 1704, but his setting of St Peter’s Denial (Le reniement de St Pierre) falls into broadly the same category. The characterisations are subtle, the drama is taut and intense, and Ex Cathedra, with its soloists, brought the story, compactly told, vividly alive.

Peter’s expressions of devotion, as much as the subsequent denials, were vividly asserted (by tenor Paul Bentley-Angell). The text is taken almost directly from the Gospels, but it is perhaps the final stages, when the chorus builds fabulously as St Peter, directly faced by Christ, is mortified by the crowing of the cockerel, that bring home in Charpentier’s music the tragedy and grief of the shamed realisation.

Anerio was also represented by another narration of similar length: the story of Jesus and the woman of Samaria. The exchange, between Lawrence White and the soprano Angela Hicks was benign, almost sublime: “I have an everlasting spring of heavenly waters in my heart, and if you drank it, you would never feel thirsty again.” But it was the fascinatingly offset chorus upper and lower voices, and a quite magical, spirited trio latterly, which brought an element of the dance to its joyous conclusion.

The acknowledged master of this genre, providing a climax to Ex Cathedra’s perfectly crafted concert, was Giacomo Carissimi (1605-74), who composed a dramatic oratorio on the Abraham and Isaac story, as well as treatments of Job, Jonah, and others. His best-known and most admired work of this kind is Jephtha (Jephte). Its first part has exciting and valorous passages drawn from the book of Judges, and recounting the hero’s dazzling victory over the Ammonites, followed by some delic­ious dancing music, led by Jephtha’s doting daughter.

But the story is, of course, a tragic one, a more cruel variant of Abra­ham and Isaac; for Jephtha (not unlike Idomeneo and Idamante in Mozart’s opera) has sworn to slay the first person to emerge from his palace, who proves to be that very daughter. The preceding joy and delight, performed here with a charmingly calculated briskness, yield to the tragic interplay between father and daughter, and her dignified but poignant acceptance of her fate.

The singing, especially when the soprano Katie Trethewey was accompanied by solo theorbo (played by the internationally famed Paula Chateauneuf), was utterly melting, The highlight of the entire work is a prolonged plaint (“Weep, children of Israel”), which positively aches. The poignant results that Skidmore drew here could not have been bettered.

The Monteverdi (plus Bouzignac and Gesualdo) pieces interspersed were, if anything, just as enriching as the main works. A librettist, Aquilino Coppini, has evolved from originally secular pieces a series of exquisite sacred texts. The intriguing result is that we are entranced by a clutch of religious anthems, warmly endowed with all the tenderness of the composer’s secular madrigals. The result was a revelation, not unlike the Pietist poetic texts that enrich many of the oratorios of Bach’s era. Here, and throughout, Ex Cathedra’s thoughtful programming proved inspired and inspiring.

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