Ex Cathedra’s St. Matthew Passion

Bach, St Matthew Passion: Ex Cathedra Choir, Ex Cathedra Baroque Orchestra, Ex Cathedra Academy of Vocal Music with Jeffrey Skidmore (Conductor). Birmingham Symphony Hall, 23.4.2011. (GR)

Evangelist-Jeremy Budd
Jesus -Eamonn Dougan
Pilate – Greg Skidmore
Soprano I – Grace Davidson
Soprano II-Natalie Clifton-Griffith
Alto I -David Allsopp
Alto II-Matthew Venner
Tenor II-Samuel Boden
Bass I – Marcus Farnsworth

Among the distinguished recordings of Bach’s St Matthew Passion is that from Ex Cathedra with Jeffrey Skidmore their founder/director. This was recorded live in the Birmingham Symphony Hall, appropriately on Good Friday Apr 10th 2009 (see review.) It was the first using the English translation by Nicholas Fisher and John Russell, both stalwarts of the Birmingham Bach Choir. The version attracted much praise, including that from Bach Scholar John Butt, who thought it addressed the challenges of the iconic work, whilst preserving the sense of its text, communicating the gospel to modern audiences and reflecting the nuances of Bach’s score.

This performance two years later included many of the artists on the CD and was also timed for the Friday of Holy Week. Skidmore had again arranged his choir and baroque instrumentalists into two groups with the soloists in prominent positions within the choir, remaining faithful to the concept of Bach. The afternoon concert was dedicated to the memory of Richard Campbell, who played cello and viola da gamba with the Ex Cathedra Orchestra for over twenty years.

In his programme notes Skidmore lists the broad range of emotions BWV244 generates. And while this highly dramatic work did not attempt to approach the 2007 operatic take of Katie Mitchell at Glyndebourne (why should it anyway?) this was an emotionally charged performance by any stretch; above all I experienced compassion, reflection and optimism.

Bach’s epistle begins two days before the Passover and ends with the sealing of the tomb. The opening chorus Come, you daughters set the mood; this was not a concert, but a celebration to grace the Christian festival of Easter. The success of the St Matthew Passion often depends on the narrative skills of the Evangelist. Jeremy Budd was soon in action, filling the demanding role effortlessly, with exceptional diction and a bright even tone. Events were seamlessly provided by his vocal links. The crystal quality of countertenor David Allsopp, as the woman from Bethany who anointed Jesus, was evident in the recitative and aria My Master and My Lord. This character’s heartache became ours with the moving repeated Grief for Sin phrase, beautifully echoed by the delicate ritornellos of flute and cello from the orchestra stage left.

As attention switched to the second orchestra and chorus on the other side of the platform, ex-Birmingham Conservatoire student Natalie Clifton-Griffith issued her warning regarding events to come, Break in grief. The light touch of the strings led by Bohan Čičić was a sublime compliment to her shimmering delivery. The preparations for the Jewish Festival of Unleavened Bread were suitably subdued, with Eamonn Dougan impressive as Jesus delivering the simple fayre of the ‘Last Supper’. But Grace Davidson, another star of the Skidmore recording, raised the tempo, celebrating in the Glory of the Cross and pledging herself with sincerity in Jesu, Saviour, I am yours, a delicious duet with the merry oboe of Gail Hennessy. Having heard further predictions from Jesus, the combined choirs gave us the first taste of the O Sacred Head hymn tune that unifies the piece, filling the auditorium with Bach’s glorious tune and harmony. The combination of tenor Jeremy Budd, chorale, keyboard, oboe and bassoon (Mike Brain) in Numbers 19 & 20 beginning O grief! was the highlight of Part I for me, a bittersweet blend of darkness and salvation. Marcus Farnsworth continued this aura into his main contribution with an animated Cup of bitterness and a devout Never will I leave him.

The phrasing of Budd as the Evangelist continued to impress during the moment of betrayal. After Jesus was taken we had the genuine duet between Davidson and Allsopp; their voices entwined delightfully to bewail the actions of the high priests. The crowd’s exclamations of Loose Him added to the drama, a sense of theatre confirmed in the subsequent chorus Have lightnings and thunders. After one of the aggressors lost an ear, Dougan was at his most authoritative in his calming recitative. The reflective chorus O World, your sinful ways lament closed Part I.

A fine illustration of the colour in the text began Part II with reference to a Lamb in Tiger’s clutches (thankfully retained from the earlier Novello edition by Fisher/Russell); it was a further gem from Allsopp. After the evidence of the two false witnesses, there was some delightful ornamentation from Samuel Boden’s Endure through lies aided by the rhythmic accompaniment of Imogen Set-Smith on cello and James Johnstone at the organ. After the high priests found Jesus guilty of blasphemy, Budd vividly told how disciple Peter denied his master. The solo violin of Margaret Faultless provided the perfect compliment to Allsopp’s Have mercy, Lord, a five-star moment that seemed all too brief. When asked whom Pilate should release, the response from both choruses was an emphatic Barabbas; crucifixion was the crowd’s solution. Davidson’s case for the defence was sympathetically put, but despite the supportive backing of the flutes of Rachel Brown and Christine Garratt, Pilate washed his hands of it all. Second alto Matthew Venner added more poignancy with his If my weeping and wailing be unavailing; the string playing from the second orchestra generated a typically baroque Bach sound.

Two more verses of O sacred head followed, the second unaccompanied one was idyllic. Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus’ cross, but an impassioned plea shifted the burden onto our flesh and blood from Dougan as Bass I; the double bass of Peter McCarthy and the two cellos of Andrew Skidmore and Emily Robinson made it a magical quartet. The events of Golgotha were relayed by the Evangelist, the organ of Philip Scriven dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. The choruses had the sound of triumph and a Handelian ring to their shouts that mocked Jesus with his own words I am the Son of God.

The full force of the lower baroque woodwinds gave an impression approaching that of a brass ensemble, adding to the despair of Allsopp and the second chorus’ Ah, Golgotha. Jesus died to the final O sacred head chorus, this time to the words Be near me Lord, when dying. But the climax for me was the single line from the two choruses Truly, this was the Son of God, producing a cathedral quality of sound and brought a tense hush to the Symphony Hall. As Budd continued to quote from the gospel of St Matthew, there were further reflections: again Allsopp stood out among this galaxy of stars with his O blessed broken body. The final chorus In tears of Grief sealed an uplifting experience.

Last year Ex Cathedra and Jeffrey Skidmore celebrated their fortieth anniversary. During this period their reputation has grown from strength to strength. This performance must rank with one of their best and as a commodity conceived, nurtured and centred in the nation’s second city, they have deservedly become a quality export. How about some recognition of this among the celebrities honoured in the pavements of Broad Street – the ‘Birmingham Walk of Stars’?

Geoff Read