Ex Cathedra’s ideal and thoughtful celebration of Christmas 2020

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Christmas Music by Candlelight: Rupert Jeffcoat (organ), Ex Cathedra / Jeffrey Skidmore (conductor). Recorded in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 21 & 22.12.2020. Streamed via the IDAGIO Global Concert Hall from 23.12.2020. (JQ)

Ex Cathedra’s Christmas Music by Candlelight

arr. SkidmoreChristmas Collage 2020
Roderick WilliamsO Adonaï
Jehan Tabouret (arr. Skidmore) – Branle de L’Official
Liz Dilnot JohnsonBlake reimagined (2020)
Traditional (arr. David Willcocks) Sussex Carol 
Sally BeamishIn the stillness
Will ToddMy Lord has come
Harold DarkeIn the bleak midwinter
Carl Rütti – I wonder as I wander
Peter WarlockBethlehem Down
Peter WarlockBenedicamus Domino
Samuel BarberTwelfth Night
arr. Michael TippettSteal away 
Gaspar FernándesXicochi conetzintle 
Kirkpatrick (arr. David Willcocks)Away in a manger
William MathiasSir Christémas
Trad.Somerset Wassail
Trad.Lapland Oik
John JoubertTorches 
J. S BachO little one sweet
Will Todd – Christus est stella
Alec RothLove is come again
J.S BachHow shall I fitly meet thee?
John RutterA Gaelic Blessing

Marcus Barcham StevensLockdown Prayer
arr. Skidmore Auld lang syne

For many years Ex Cathedra’s Carols by Candlelight concerts have been events enjoyed by up to 5,000 people annually, not just in Birmingham, where the ensemble is based, but in various venues around the country. This year, Covid-related restrictions put paid to most of those concerts: only a couple could be staged, none of them in Birmingham. I have never had a chance to attend one of these Ex Cathedra Christmas concerts – my diary is usually jam-packed in December. This year, however, faced with the cancellation of most of their concerts, Jeffrey Skidmore and his singers decided to stream their concert and I was able to watch it. Thus, right at the end of a depressing year in which so many concerts have been missed, at last the pandemic delivered me this one small, personal benefit.

So, on Christmas Eve morning, having completed the (few) Christmas preparations in our household with which I am trusted, I settled down to enjoy this streamed concert. The concert was filmed in the spacious auditorium of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall and, of course, the 36 singers were socially distanced from each other. I guess that the physical separation imposed new disciplines on them, requiring them to listen even more closely than usually to each other. If, however, there were any such demands on them these were not for one moment evident: balance, tuning and ensemble were as excellent as one has come to expect from this crack choir.

The programme opened with Jeffrey Skidmore’s own Christmas Collage 2020, during the course of which the singers filed onto the platform. I am not going to spoil the surprise by describing either the piece or the way in which it was performed, save to say that very intelligent use was made of on- and off-stage spaces. As I listened through good-quality headphones, the recording conveyed terrifically the sense of the spacious acoustic of Symphony Hall, the music filling it. This was an opener to whet the appetite.

Equally impressive in its use of the spaces of the hall was the performance of O Adonaï by Roderick Williams. This setting of one of the Great ’O’ antiphons was written by the celebrated baritone (and fine composer) for Ex Cathedra. I have heard it several times before and I think it is a superb piece. Here, the tone was set by soprano soloist Katie Trethewey who sang the opening solo thrillingly from her position high up above the choir, right in front of the organ console. The performance that followed took its cue from her and was really exciting. Later in the piece the second soloist, baritone Lawrence White, was also excellent.

Thereafter, the programme unfolded as an unbroken sequence – in addition to the musical items there were four well-chosen readings, all delivered by choir members. As will be seen from the programme list, Jeffrey Skidmore mixed the familiar with the unfamiliar. So, for example, there were two more pieces written for the choir – by Liz Dilnot Johnson and Alec Roth – as well as two arrangements by Sir David Willcocks. These latter must be well over sixty years old now, but such is their quality that they effortlessly hold their places in the repertoire. Blake reimagined by Liz Dilnot Johnson is ingenious. It is a reinterpretation of the famous lines by William Blake which Parry set as Jerusalem. The composer here takes both Blake’s words and some of the harmonies of Jerusalem and sets them in a very twenty-first century idiom. Particularly arresting is the use of two female soloists (here Margaret Lingas and Gabriella Liandu, both excellent). These two singers have striking, challenging vocal lines, heavily influenced by Gospel and Blues, which they sing in the foreground while their choral colleagues add sophisticated harmonies in the background. Arguably, it is not a Christmas piece but its inclusion here was fully justified. Ex Cathedra has a long association with Alec Roth and, largely through their performances and recordings of his music, I have come to admire this composer very much. His Love is come again might be called an Anglo-French piece in that it begins with a tenor soloist (the impressive James Robinson) singing the first verse of Noël nouvelet in French, after which the choir sang further stanzas in English. With this Gallic connection it was fitting that part of the time the sound of a softly played tambour was added to the texture.

Elsewhere in the programme, I was delighted to hear again Will Todd’s My Lord has come. I have heard and sung this wonderfully expressive setting many times. If it hasn’t already become a Christmas classic, it surely deserves to be. However, I am not sure I have previously heard Todd’s Christus est stella. What a find this is. Todd’s harmonies are intense and expressive and create a lovely piece. Most of the setting is a cappella but the addition of the organ at the brief, radiant climax is a masterstroke.

The programme was jointly curated by Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra’s current Associate Conductor, Hilary Campbell. They constructed the programme with great discernment. So, for example Tippett’s Steal away, though perhaps not an obvious Christmas choice, segued effortlessly and effectively into the gentle, beautiful Xicochi conetzintle by Gaspar Fernándes (1566-1629), one of the many works from the Spanish colonies which Ex Cathedra rehabilitated through their fine series of CDs for Hyperion (review). Another fine segue saw Todd’s My Lord has come yield seamlessly to Harold Darke’s classic In the bleak midwinter (just the last verse on this occasion). Immediately before the Todd, I loved Sally Beamish’s In the stillness, a tender, beautiful piece.

I must mention two items that brought more than a smile to my face. We heard the traditional Somerset Wassail in which Jeffrey Skidmore himself sang the verses with a nicely judged air of rusticity which was echoed by the men of the choir when they sang the refrain. Not to be outdone, the ladies then gave us another traditional song, Lapland Oik during which they emphasised the rhythmic energy by striking the stage with staves.

I have mentioned already a couple of choices which were not obvious selections for a Christmas programme – though I hasten to say that I have not done so as a criticism; all the pieces, and the sentiments they express, cohered very satisfyingly in this programme. Arguably, the last piece on the official programme, John Rutter’s A Gaelic Blessing also belongs in the ‘not obvious’ category for Christmas. However, the message of the words and Rutter’s sincere setting of them was just right for the troubled times in which we currently live.

That theme of troubled times was picked up in the two encores. The concert concluded with a highly effective arrangement by Jeffrey Skidmore of Auld lang syne which was apposite for these days in which so many people are perforce apart from loved ones. However, an even stronger impression was made by Marcus Barcham Stevens’s Lockdown Prayer. Stevens is one of the violinists in the Fitzwilliam String Quartet and he has written for Ex Cathedra before. This piece takes words from the Gospel of St John in which Jesus says, ‘I am the light of the world’. The text offers consolation and reassurance in worrying times and Steven’s simple, homophonic setting spoke simply and directly. I was moved by both the music and the heartfelt performance. I can pay Stevens no higher compliment than to say I immediately wound the film back and replayed his piece.

Ex Cathedra’s Christmas Music by Candlelight

Even though there could be no physical audience present to spur the singers on, this was a super concert. The singing was flawless and highly engaging. I enjoyed every item on the programme. Production values were high, too. The camera work by Simon Peter King and Simon Page was excellent and unobtrusive – I especially liked the occasional shots through a fish-eye lens taken from the choir stalls behind the stage and looking out over the performers into the auditorium. The lighting was excellent and Simon Peter King’s sound recording did full justice to the excellence of the performances.

The concert is available to watch until 5 January 2021 on the IDAGIO Global Concert Hall. It’s an ideal and thoughtful celebration of Christmas 2020.

John Quinn   

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