Ex Cathedra’s Richly Rewarding Rachmaninov at the Three Choirs Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Three Choirs Festival [4] – Rachmaninov: Martha McLorinan (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Ex Cathedra / Jeffrey Skidmore (conductor). Gloucester Cathedral, 29.7.2019. (JQ)

Ex Cathedra at the Three Choirs Festival (c) Michael Whitefoot

Rachmaninov – All-Night Vigil (Vespers) Op.37

After their exertions in Berlioz and Verdi on the two previous evenings, the members of the Three Choirs Festival Chorus had a well-earned night off from performing.  Instead the Festival welcomed Jeffrey Skidmore and his Birmingham-based choir, Ex Cathedra.

Ex Cathedra is much more than ‘just’ a choir. It’s a remarkable organisation which not only presents choral concerts of the highest standard but also has a longstanding and very valuable musical education programme through which it reaches out into the West Midlands community. If that were not enough, Ex Cathedra has a good number of excellent CDs to its credit. Under Jeffrey Skidmore’s enterprising leadership, they have done a great deal to revive unfamiliar music, particularly from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Latin America. Ex Cathedra has been equally active in promoting music of our own time, commissioning, performing and recording important new works from composers such as Sir James MacMillan, Roxanna Panufnik and Alec Roth. The coming season will be their 50th anniversary season, making their appearance at the Three Choirs Festival all the more timely and appropriate.

Though I’ve reported on a number of Ex Cathedra concerts in recent years, the last time I heard them at Three Choirs was back in 2007 when they gave a superb account of Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers (review). This performance nearly featured another set of Vespers. I say ‘nearly’ because Rachmaninov’s great masterpiece for a cappella choir used to be known in the West as his Vespers but nowadays it’s much more usual to use the correct title: All-Night Vigil

Rachmaninov composed this work in early 1915 – it was first performed, in Moscow, in March of that year. I had not realised until I read Gwilym Bowen’s valuable programme note that the composition of the fifteen-movement work took Rachmaninov a mere two weeks. In this score Rachmaninov sets psalms and hymns from three Orthodox services, which correspond to the services of Vespers, Matins and Prime in the western Christian tradition. Rachmaninov followed the requirement to use traditional Orthodox chants as the basis for a lot of the music, though for six of the movements he used chants that he himself had composed. It’s the rich harmonisation of these chants that makes Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil so distinctive.

Jeffrey Skidmore is renowned for his scholarly research into the music that Ex Cathedra performs, and tonight was no exception. Prior to the concert we were told that his researches into the 1915 premiere of the All-Night Vigil had led him to make some changes to the order of the movements. As a result, movement 13, ‘Today is salvation come into the world’, and movement 14, ‘Being risen from the tomb’, were brought forward from their customary position in the order of movements so that they were heard immediately after movement 8, ‘Praise ye the name of the Lord’. I subsequently established from Ex Cathedra that, in preparation for performing the All-Night Vigil, Jeffrey Skidmore looked at the 1915 premiere and the liturgical context, partly in an effort to understand why movement 2 opens with a composed ‘Amen’. Whilst doing so he came across the poster for the first performance which listed the individual movements. In that performance the movements we commonly known as movements 13 and 14 were positioned between numbers 8 and 9. It seems that no one else has previously noticed this, not even Russian choirs, and I wonder how long it is since the movements were ordered in the way we now heard them. It will be interesting to see if other conductors now follow Jeffrey Skidmore’s lead.

During the performance several of the movements were prefaced by what I imagine were antiphons, usually sung by a solo voice. Though I’ve heard something similar done on one or two recordings of the work I can’t recall hearing quite so many antiphons before. It was most effective. I suspected that the music used for each antiphon was the Orthodox chant on which Rachmaninov based the movement in question. I have since learned that the Znamenny chants were used to acknowledge that there would have been other items (musical and non-musical) in the liturgical context. The 1915 premiere was a concert, so Ex Cathedra were not attempting to recreate the 1915 performance, rather to explore some different elements. It was also a way to introduce and familiarise the audience with the chants that they then hear in the composed movements. That point about audience familiarisation seems to me to be an important and insightful one.

The performance was shrewdly presented. Onstage, close to where the choir was positioned, there was a solitary triangular candelabra on which all the candles were lit. The cathedral lighting was not fully switched on and as the dusk fell outside during the course of the performance, the light in the cathedral became naturally subdued in a way that was most atmospheric and very appropriate to the music that we were hearing.

If I counted correctly as the choir came onto the platform there were 38 singers in all. They made a splendid sound.  Singing in Church Slavonic, their blend was consistently excellent. Without a question, the most impressive feature of the performance was the dynamic control and the range of dynamics at the choir’s command. This enabled Jeffrey Skidmore to obtain from his choir the most exquisite quiet singing and also – sometimes just a few bars later – absolutely fervent climaxes. The second movement, ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’ introduced us to the mezzo soloist, Martha McLorinan. I remember that at last year’s Three Choirs Festival, singing with Tenebrae, she took the crucial solo role in Judith Bingham’s A Walk with Ivor Gurney. She impressed me then (review) and here, in a very different musical context, I admired her singing once again. Her tone was lustrous and she voiced the music in a gently expressive way that was entirely appropriate. Andrew Staples was a late replacement for an indisposed colleague – some substitute!  The tenor solo in the famous fifth movement, ‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace’ (Nunc dimittis), is a demanding one but to have a singer of Mr Staples’ calibre to sing it was luxury casting indeed. Unsurprisingly, he did a very fine job, his voice ringing and clear. His performance was very impressive, both here and in a couple of other much shorter solos in other movements.

Throughout the performance the singing of Ex Cathedra was superb. Their exemplary dynamic range enabled them to bring ‘Hail, O Virgin Mother of God’ (‘Bogoroditse Devo’) vividly to life while movement 8, ‘Praise ye the name of the Lord’, was joyful, the rhythms expertly sprung. Later, dynamic contrasts were used to maximum effect in the service of the music in ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’ and the concluding ‘O queen of the heavenly host’ was rendered as jubilant and exciting as it should be through the choir’s fervent singing. Consistently, the ensemble was highly disciplined. It was evident that the singers had been prepared in scrupulous detail by Jeffrey Skidmore but there was nothing studied about the performance. Instead, under his unobtrusive but clear direction, the performance emerged as fresh and completely committed. At the end there was an unusually extended, profound silence as if the audience collectively were reluctant to break the spell of the superb performance they had just experienced.

This was a richly rewarding performance which did full justice to Rachmaninov’s great choral masterpiece. It offered proof, if proof were needed, of why Ex Cathedra are regarded as one of the UK’s elite choirs.

John Quinn

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