Ex Cathedra’s Visionary Concert in Tewkesbury Abbey

14/07/2016

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 Parry, Weir, Howells, MacMillan: Cheltenham Festival – Ex Cathedra, MacMillan Ensemble/Jeffrey Skidmore, Alexander Mason (organ), Tewkesbury Abbey, 13.7.2016. (JQ)

A New Jerusalem
ParryI was glad
Judith WeirIlluminare, Jerusalem
ParryLord, let me know mine end
HowellsO pray for the peace of Jerusalem
ParryBlest Pair of Sirens
ParryJerusalem
Sir James McMillanSeven Angels

In January 2015 I attended a concert in Birmingham at which Ex Cathedra gave the world premiere of James MacMillan’s Seven Angels, a work commissioned by them. I was deeply impressed by the new piece (review) and so when I discovered that the Cheltenham Music Festival had invited Jeffrey Skidmore and his colleagues to perform it the date was inked into my diary as a “must attend”.

The Birmingham premiere was also given during a concert with a Jerusalem theme though arguably the theme was more overt on this occasion. In Birmingham we heard all of Parry’s magnificent Songs of Farewell – in one of the finest performances of them that I have heard – but on this occasion I had to content myself with one of them, Lord, let me know mine end. The other works on tonight’s programme provided ample compensation, however, not least the inclusion of the work that is arguably Parry’s choral masterpiece, Blest Pair of Sirens.

We began with Parry and I understand that some members of the Parry family were present to hear a fine performance of Sir Hubert’s 1902 Coronation anthem. The majestic opening was given out with full, robust sound by Ex Cathedra though later they were suitably sensitive at the passage beginning ‘O, pray for the peace of Jerusalem’, words which we were to hear again a little later in the programme.

Judith Weir’s Illuminare, Jerusalem was commissioned for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. I don’t believe I’ve previously heard it outside the context of Christmas music, nor do I recall experiencing a performance by a choir other than one of the size normally associated with cathedrals or collegiate chapels. However, it was good to hear it in this programme and the precision and discipline of Ex Cathedra meant that this larger choir (perhaps 40 voices) delivered its bare medieval-style textures and taut rhythms very well. Oddly, five stanzas of the poem were printed in the programme and I heard a few audience members at the interval wondering if part of the piece had been left out. It hadn’t been: Judith Weir set just three stanzas; it was the leaflet that was wrong.

It was back to Parry for Lord, let me know mine end. This is the last of Parry’s Songs of Farewell. All six of these settings are masterly but arguably Lord, let me know mine end is the finest of all. The piece is a setting of verses from Psalm 39 and it’s scored for two SATB choirs. The words are wonderful in their own right but Parry enhances them with music of great variety and feeling. Parry’s word painting is very fine in this piece and the singers displayed fine dynamic control in s highly nuanced performance. Jeffrey Skidmore shaped the music with great understanding.

Howells’ O pray for the peace of Jerusalem dates from 1941 and its inclusion here was highly appropriate, not just because it fitted with the Jerusalem theme but also because, as Jeremy Dibble pointed out in the programme notes, the anthem was composed in Cheltenham. It sets the two verses from Psalm 122 that Parry made into the more reflective section of I was glad. It’s another piece that one might usually associate with the smaller forces of a church choir but Ex Cathedra made a fine job of it. The harmonic language isn’t as luxuriant and complex as one hears in many of the composer’s later church music pieces but it’s a lovely little work

For me the highlight of the first half was Blest Pair of Sirens. It’s a magnificent piece and here it received a very fine performance. Alexander Mason brought urgency to the organ introduction and this urgency was continued when the choir entered – though by ‘urgency’ I don’t mean to suggest that the pace was too swift. Jeffrey Skidmore ensured that the performance was dynamic – there was no fear of Victorian stuffiness here. However, the memorable melody for ‘O, may we soon again renew that song’ was rightly given a proper degree of expansiveness – the sopranos revelled in this tune as did the tenors a few moments later. The long fugal passage leading to the magisterial conclusion was impressively built.

Finally, we were all invited to stand and join in the singing of Parry’s most memorable tune. Jerusalem was sung with gusto.

Music that was often – but not always – grittier formed the second half. I heard the world premiere of James MacMillan’s Seven Angels and was excited by the prospect of hearing it again. The piece plays for about 35 minutes but, as I commented in my original review, its reach and ambition is far greater than this timescale would suggest. It’s scored for SATB chorus, which is frequently divided into multiple parts. There are important solos (SATB) for soloists drawn from the choir – these solo roles are extremely demanding – and the singers are accompanied by a small ensemble. There are just five instruments: cello, harp, percussion (a multiplicity of instruments played by one musician), and two trumpets. The trumpeters have a key role and are called upon to play natural trumpets and shofars, the latter being in contrasting but unspecified keys according to the information on the Boosey & Hawkes website.

MacMillan has taken for his text a substantial number of verses from the Book of Revelation, beginning at Chapter 8. The words are in English from the English Standard Version of the Bible (Catholic edition). The words describe that part of St John’s vision in which seven angelic trumpeters appear successively to herald apocalyptic events. Each angelic appearance is prefaced by arresting, brazen fanfares played on one or both of the trumpets or shofars. Hearing the piece for a second time made me revise an opinion I held after the first performance. Then I wondered if MacMillan had perhaps overdone the fanfares a little; now I am convinced that he has not. In the first performance the trumpeters were placed above and behind the chorus in a balcony. Such an arrangement was not possible this evening; instead the trumpeters were placed to the right of the conductor beyond the choir. Though the spatial effect was ‘lost’ the fanfares resounded thrillingly in the Abbey’s resonant acoustic.

Once again MacMillan’s vocal writing made a huge impression. The four soloists, who were uncredited in the programme, appear in succession to narrate the arrival of the first four angels. Their music is highly dramatic – the soprano part is stratospherically high – and serve as a reminder of the composer’s pedigree in opera. Almost all the rest of the text is delivered by the choir. MacMillan’s choral writing is astonishingly varied. As well as singing complex polyphony the choir is required to deploy a number of other vocal techniques, including Sprechstimme, glissandi, humming, shouting and whistling. I would imagine that the demands made upon the singers are ferocious at times but the chorus and soloists sang the work with blazing conviction.

The piece plays continuously and for roughly its first half, as the various appearances of the angels are described, the music is highly dramatic and often uncompromisingly vivid. St John is describing an apocalyptic vision and MacMillan’s music reflects that in music that has a visceral impact. In the last part of the work, after all the angels have appeared, a change is wrought. The choir sings ‘Then God’s temple in heaven was opened…’ and the music is both consonant and awestruck. Then the choir sings ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth…’ This begins a passage for full ensemble which consists of a series of rapturous climaxes; here the music is suffused with radiance. There is one final huge, trumpet-capped climax at ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end’ and then Seven Angels comes to an abrupt end.

There was a long silence after the music had ended as the audience absorbed what they had heard. I’m delighted to report that this complex, challenging score and the expert and highly committed performance rightly received a very warm reception.

Seven Angels is a visionary score and I was delighted to hear it again. Record companies seem to queue up to record music by James MacMillan so I hope that in due course a recording will be made so that the work reaches a wide audience. It would be very fitting if Jeffrey Skidmore and his superb choir could make that recording for I have now heard themchampioning Seven Angels twice and on each occasion to stunning effect.

London audiences will get an opportunity to hear this important work for the first time on October 15, 2016 when Ex Cathedra performs Seven Angels at St Giles, Cripplegate. Details are here.

John Quinn

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