I was in two minds whether to opt for this concert, as I’d have another one to review the following day, but from the first note it was clearly the right decision. What a delightful performance! It was also a chance to experience this newly-opened concert venue, the Elgar Concert Hall within the University of Birmingham’s Bramall Music Building: a charming, intimate setting which was especially atmospheric in flickering candlelight. The ten-strong vocal ensemble used the space creatively, enriching the whole musical experience. They processed in around the back of the horseshoe-shaped auditorium, intoning a Quechua hymn in adoration of the Virgin Mary, Hanacpachap cussicuinin (“The bliss of heaven”), in keeping with processions into Latin American churches. Dated 1631, it’s said to be the earliest printed polyphony in the Americas, and accompanied by solemn drum and rattling rainstick, it was captivating.

Ex Cathedra Consort © Paul Arthur
Ex Cathedra Consort
© Paul Arthur

This haunting start set the scene for a thoughtfully structured programme, underpinned by conductor Jeffrey Skidmore’s research. It’s no accident that the group’s name, referring to a bishop’s chair (hinting at the choir’s origins in Birmingham Cathedral), literally means “from the throne” or more colloquially “with authority”. Not only does this accurately reflect the accomplishment of the young singers, whether in solo roles or as sensitive team players, but also the guiding principle of understanding the repertoire. Which in no way made it a sterile academic exercise, as the end result was wonderful entertainment – or in the words of my neighbour, “I could listen to this for ever”. By unspoken audience consent, there was no applause until the end of each half, but the silent appreciation was almost tangible.

Missa ego flos campi by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, a Spaniard who emigrated to Mexico, wove its way through the first half, interspersed in the liturgical gaps with “villancicos”, the equivalent of Iberian and Latin American Christmas carols. Padilla had the luxury of large choral forces at Puebla Cathedral, and set this mass for double choir, combining the flowing polyphony of the old country with lively, syncopated phrases suggestive of the New World. Ex Cathedra displayed beautiful phrasing and did justice to the delicious harmonies, particularly exquisite when final chords hung in the air. I was very impressed by the clarity of diction... and for the “villancicos” they were faced with many, potentially tongue-twisting, languages! These songs lent a fine balance of solemnity and festive joy to the proceedings, and explored a variety of structures.

Gaspar Fernandez’s Xicochi conetzintle is a gorgeous lullaby in the Aztec language Nahuatl, and Ex Cathedra’s restful interpretation of this and Tomás Luis de Victoria’s soporific O magnum mysterium contrasted with Tomás Pascual’s Oy es día de cantar! (appropriately “Today is the day for singing!”), backed by tambourine and drum, and the lively Cuban dance rhythms of Juan García de Zéspedes’ Convidando está la noche, which tells of the invitation to express praise for the Christ child in song and dance. The language of the Chiquitos Indians was the order of the day for the first half’s final piece, then mesmerically repeated several times over in Spanish, Dulce Jesús mío, as the Consort processed off, the delectable simplicity of the sound retreating further and further into the distance, for all the world as though they were returning it to the Bolivian jungle whence it came.

Linguistic challenges continued into the second half, with a delightful array of early European music that made up Ex Cathedra’s first Christmas performances over 40 years ago, in French, German, Latin and early English. It opened with the Consort stationed behind the audience in the gallery, singing Somerset Wassail with such convincing West Country accents that one wondered whether they’d been at the scrumpy during the interval. The theatrical use of space continued later with Guillaume Bouzignac’s Noé, Noé!, essentially a conversation between shepherds and the Angel Gabriel, with one of the sopranos taking the role of the latter, perched high above so that her pure voice soared literally over the others. In amongst the carols there were readings of the Christmas story, also effectively delivered from varying points around the hall, adding dramatic depth. Taken from five different early translations of the Bible, ranging from Wycliffe (1380) to King James (1611), they respectively complemented the music geographically and chronologically.

The familiar subject matter was treated with imaginative style and executed to perfection. J.S. Bach’s Wie soll ich dich empfangen? (“How shall I fitly meet Thee?”) was sung in German, then English, with poise and stillness, with a marked gap in the line “O fount of light ... shine brightly” pointing up the importance of the Christmas message, and particularly poignant in the flickering candlelight.

****1