Ex Cathedra’s Fascinating Blend of Golden Age Music from Both Sides of the Atlantic

27/04/2017

 Various, In a Strange Land: Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore (director), Cadogan Hall, London, 26.4.2017. (CS)

Orchésographie de Thoinot Arbeau – ‘Belle qui tiens ma vie
Genevan Psalter – ‘Estans assis aux rives aquatiques’
Sweelinck – ‘Estans assis aux rives aquatiques’
Byrd – Mass for Four Voices: Kyrie, Gloria; Mass for Four Voices: Credo; Mass for Four Voices: Sanctus, Ave verum corpus, Mass for Four Voices: Agnus Dei
Weelkes – ‘Thule, the Period of Cosmography’, ‘The Andalusian Merchant’
Tomkins – When David Heard
Tallis – ‘Why fum’th in fight’, ‘If ye love me’
Gibbons – ‘O clap your hands together’
Ritual, Lima (1631) – ‘Hanac pachap cussicuinin’
Victoria – ‘Super flumina Babylonis’ a 8
Padilla – Missa Ego flos campi: Kyrie, Gloria; Missa Ego flos campi: Credo; Missa Ego flos campi: Sanctus; Missa Ego flos campi: Agnus Dei
14th century Spanish – ‘Polorum regina’
Fernandes – Xicochi conetzintle
Symbolico Catholico Indiano (1598) – Capac eterno Dios
Pascual – ‘¡Oy es día de placer y de cantar!’
Lobo – Versa est in luctum
Hernández – ‘Sancta Maria, e!’
Zéspedes – ‘Convidando esta la noche’
Anon – ‘Dulce, Jesús mío’

‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ The words of Psalm 137, redolent with yearning and exile, were placed in the context of the turbulent years of the 16th and 17th centuries, in this inventive, and international, programme given by the choral group Ex Cathedra at the Cadogan Hall.

The programme was devised around two central Masses – William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices and Juan Gutierrez de Padilla’s Missa Ego flos campi – which threaded their way through, in the first half, Renaissance dances, madrigals and anthems, and, after the interval, vibrant ritual music from Peru, Bolivia and Mexico.

Director Jeffrey Skidmore and his singers have travelled to such southern territories before: they have released a series of recordings of Latin American music from the Spanish colonies, the most recent being their 2015 disc of late 17th to early 19th century choral music from five Brazilian cities.

On this occasion we had music in French, English, Spanish, Nahauti, Quechua, Latin and Chiquitan, but if the music roved far and wide then its delivery by the ten singers of Ex Cathedra was decidedly European in execution and manner. Always refined and tasteful, the diction clear, the sound clean and well-focused, even the more exuberant of the South American offerings were well-mannered and courteous. Skidmore’s direction was detailed and sensitive – many times I admired the way in which he gently coaxed a particular vocal line to the fore of the ensemble and allowed it slip back into the well-blended mass – but there were occasions when I longed for a little more dynamism. Even the drum (a surdo?) which heralded the processional pavane ‘Belle, qui tiens ma vie’ (1588) with which the performance opened was decorously thrummed by Skidmore. Of the singers, only baritone Greg Skidmore seemed visibly swayed by the colour and rhythm of the pulsating and flamboyant repertory explored.

In the first half of the performance, after two settings in French of Psalm 137 – Sweelinck’s gentle counterpoint flowered delicately within a prevailing mezzo piano dynamic – Byrd’s Mass assumed centre-stage. With the death of Mary Tudor in 1558, the native tradition of Mass composition had lapsed as the Anglican English liturgy held sway. The Mass continued to be celebrated illegally by the English Catholic community, but when Byrd’s three Masses (in four, three and five parts) were published in the early 1590s, they were not issued as a set but individually, with the part-books undated and lacking title pages. The identity of the printer, Thomas East, was not disclosed. Thus, Ex Cathedra’s ‘concealment’ of the movements of Byrd’s Mass within works from the Anglican and Huguenots traditions cleverly evoked the secrecy and dangers of an era in which even the Queen’s favoured composer could find himself heavily fined and suspended from the Chapel Royal for recusancy.

The Kyrie was pure of tone, the ambience restrained, the communication direct. The sections of the swiftly moving Gloria were more individually characterised and Skidmore was keen to highlight the expressive movement in the lower voices, building to great strength and muscularity of line at the close, ‘Cum sancto spiritu in Gloria Dei Patris’. The Credo was an urgent expression of faith, each phrase pushing towards its conclusion and again there was a growing ‘firmness’ to the ensemble sound with the address to the Lord, the Giver of Life (‘Et in spiritum sanctum, Dominum, et vivificantem’) and the closing statement of belief and longing for the world to come. The Sanctus was sweetly homogenous, growing in warmth through the final Hosanna. The Agnus Dei’s final prayer for peace brought forth individual voices to confirm Byrd’s expressive treatment of the text and culminated in a luminous final cadence.

Weelkes’ madrigal ‘Thule, the period of cosmography’ was bright and florid – a fitting aural complement for the astronomical imagery of the text. And, here, there was drama in the vivid dynamic contrasts and harmonic ‘wonders’, which created an effective contrast to the imitative fluidity of ‘The Andalusian Merchant’. Both the timbral blend and the exquisite pianissimo of Tomkins’ ‘When David heard’ were notable; and one could fully appreciate why Ralph Vaughan Williams was inspired by Tallis’ ‘Why fum’th in fight’, so insistent was the rhetorical energy of the declamation.

The precision of the ensemble in Byrd’s ‘Ave Verum Corpus’ was also admirable, highlighting the expressive juxtaposition of major and minor modes, while the crystalline pianissimo of the sopranos’ line was truly moving, even for this most theologically sceptical listener. The first half closed jubilantly with Gibbons’ ‘O clap your hands together’, but while ‘O sing praises’ was repeated vigorously, one would have liked more sense of festivity and bravura: after all, the anthem was first performed at a ceremony in Oxford when Gibbons received his doctoral degree and it is surely designed to show off Gibbons’ compositional skills in confident style.

In 1629, Juan Gutierrez de Padilla (c.1590-1664), a native of Malaga in southern Spain, was appointed maestro di capilla at the cathedral of Puebla. By 1645 his singers and instrumentalists, numbering 28 men and 14 boys, were acknowledged to be the finest choir in all of Spain’s foreign dominions. Padilla’s own parody mass, Ego Flos Campi, is simultaneously European in style and South American in ambience – the liturgical forms infused with the vibrant dance rhythms of popular Spanish and African dance. A refreshing energy and unpredictability coloured Ex Cathedra’s presentation of the Kyrie and Gloria of Padilla’s Mass, while the Credo was a light and joyful affirmation – contrasting with Byrd’s earnestness – before the concluding cadence of peaceful assurance. The Sanctus opened airily, a luscious acoustic filling of the aural space; then vibrant rhythmic motifs expressed confidence in the Lord’s blessing.

Weaving between the movements of Padrilla’s Mass, Victoria’s ‘Super flumina Babylonis’ a 8 injected rhetorical power into the proceedings, through the fluid movement of the inner parts, the surprising temporal shifts, and the imploring energy of the Psalm’s concluding question – the programme’s unifying motif.

While Fernandes’ lullaby ‘Xicochi conetzintle’ was a deliciously gentle morsel for four voices (Louise Prickett, Amy Wood, Martha McLorinan and Nick Ashby), the 14th-century drum- and tambourine-accompanied Spanish song, ‘Polorum regina’ and Pascual’s ‘¡Oy es día de placer y de cantar!’ might have inspired the singers to let their hair down rather more. However, Ex Cathedra’s technical assurance was demonstrated by the confident unisons of ‘Capac eterno Dios’ and by the expressive paradox of rising melodic lines and falling harmonic progression in Alonso Lobo’s motet ‘Versa est in luctum’, which was written in 1598 for Philip II of Spain’s memorial at Toledo Cathedral; the latter was truly elegant and beautiful.

The closing items brought relaxation and brightness. Francisco Hernández’s ‘Sancta Maria, e!’ shone with joy, while Skidmore made much of the narrative contrasts of Juan Garcia de Zéspedes’ ‘Convidando esta la noche’, inserting a beatific hymn within the dance, and crafting a lovely, slight delay at the final cadence, ‘And so we make an end, oh!’ (Porque callenos ay!).

We travelled a long way in this programme, but the spirit remained essentially English; a perfect balance, perhaps.

This performance was broadcast live on Radio 3 and is available at BBC Radio 3 in concert.

Claire Seymour

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