Ex Cathedra go back to their roots as they emerge from lockdown

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Tallis, Byrd, Gibbons, Tomkins, Morley, Sheppard: Ex Cathedra / Jeffrey Skidmore (conductor). CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 25.11.2020. (JQ)

Ex Cathedra (c) Janet Skidmore

Tallis Lamentations of Jeremiah I
Byrd Bow thine ear
Byrd – Mass for Four Voices, Kyrie & Gloria
GibbonsThus Angels sung
Anon (Mulliner Book)Rejoice in the Lord
Byrd Sing joyfully
Byrd – Mass for Four Voices, Credo
Tallis Why fum’th in fight
Tomkins When David heard
TallisIf ye love me
Byrd – Mass for Four Voices, Sanctus & Benedictus
Morley Nolo mortem peccatoris
SheppardChrist our Paschal Lamb
Byrd Ave verum corpus
Byrd – Mass for Four Voices, Agnus Dei

In common with every other musical ensemble in the UK, the Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra have been badly hit by the Covid restrictions. Their concert activity was halted in March – right in the midst of their 50th anniversary season. Then, in another cruel blow, they were on the cusp of launching their renowned Christmas by Candlelight series of concerts for 2020 when the new restrictions from the beginning of December, just announced by the UK government, obliged them to cancel almost all of those concerts. The only ones to survive are those in Hereford Cathedral (14 December) and at St. John’s, Smith Square, London (17 December). Details of those concerts can be found on the Ex Cathedra website.

Undaunted by the challenges of the Covid restrictions, Jeffrey Skidmore and fourteen Ex Cathedra singers (5/3/3/3) recorded their first virtual concert, a rich programme of Tudor polyphony, at the CBSO Centre, Birmingham on 25 November. I enjoyed it when it was streamed a few days later. This was the ensemble’s first performance for ten months.

Ex Cathedra at the CBSO Centre

The concert bore the title ‘Our First Love – the English Renaissance’. Jeffrey Skidmore told us in the programme notes that, when the choir began, the music from that era was their first love. Consequently, “in our interrupted anniversary year, it seems fitting and appropriate that for Ex Cathedra’s first live concert since lockdown we return to our roots”. He elaborated on this when saying a few words after the Tallis Lamentations had been sung. This was the very first piece on the programme for the inaugural Ex Cathedra concert in 1969.

The performance of the Lamentations was excellent. The music was delivered with poise and feeling. Immediately, in this first piece, one could appreciate what were to be some of the cardinal virtues of this concert. To meet the demands of social distancing the singers were positioned apart from each other. However, in no way did these arrangements compromise the blend, balance or discipline of the choir. I listened through headphones and it seemed to me that the nicely resonant acoustic of CBSO Centre was well suited to a group such as this. Tallis’s long lines were sung smoothly and expressively. It was intelligent to follow the Lamentations with Byrd’s Bow thine ear since the texts of both pieces speak of the desolation of Jerusalem.

Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices formed the spine of this programme. We heard it not as a continuous sequence of movements but, rather, with the movements separated as would happen in a liturgical context. Each movement was followed by a few other pieces in short unbroken sequences. I very much liked this way of presenting the music. I love to hear Byrd’s Mass sung by a small consort, such as The Tallis Scholars and one argument for such presentation is that the Mass would have been sung in secret Recusant gatherings with probably just a handful of singers. Yet, I am just as keen on a performance by a slightly larger group of expert singers, as was here the case.  Jeffrey Skidmore led his singers in superb accounts of all the movements of the Mass.

Among other highlights was the performance of Thomas Tomkins’s When David heard. Tomkins expressed the sorrow experienced by David at the death of Absalom in music of great eloquence. I admired the deep feeling that Skidmore and his singers brought to this piece in a very fine performance. They were no less successful in Tallis’s If ye love me. What an exquisite little gem this piece is! The performance did full justice to it.

The final section of the programme, consisting of pieces by Morley, Sheppard and Byrd, was carefully planned. Byrd’s Ave verum corpus, a miniature masterpiece, marvellously sung, led us into the Agnus Dei from Byrd’s Mass. In the context of these troubled and troubling times the Agnus Dei, with its two pleas for mercy followed by another plea, this time for peace, seemed extremely apposite. It seemed to me that Ex Cathedra’s singing of ‘Dona nobis pacem’ came from the heart, though this was achieved without compromising the poise of the performance.

We were treated to an encore and John Sheppard’s I give you a new commandment was very satisfying, both as a choice and as a performance.

This was a very fine concert indeed. The singing was flawless throughout and the choice of music – and the ordering of each piece within the programme – was discerning. By rights a concert such as this should have been greeted with warm applause; let us hope that it won’t be too long before Ex Cathedra can regularly sing to live audiences again and are also allowed to muster a larger choir.

The concert was recorded and edited by Simon Peter King. He did an excellent job: the sound quality was first rate while the camera work was unobtrusive and drew us into the performances.

John Quinn  

This concert was streamed via the IDAGIO Global Concert Hall from 29 November 2020 and is available until 13 December. Click here to access it.

Leave a Comment