Events in the life of the church leading up to Good Friday have inspired some of the most sublime choral music ever written. At St John’s Smith Square, as part of its Holy Week Festival, the Birmingham-based vocal ensemble Ex Cathedra presented a Lenten programme of 17th-century French and Italian sacred music entitled Harmonic Spiritual Theatre. Exploring themes of sacrifice, betrayal and regret there was much to admire in Jeffrey Skidmore’s enterprising and thematic programming. But two rather commonplace works by Giovanni Francesco Anerio merely underlined the dramatic force and magnificent invention belonging to the music of Giocomo Carissimi and his pupil Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

Ex Cathedra © Paul Arthur
Ex Cathedra
© Paul Arthur

The music of Claudio Monteverdi was also represented in a selection of madrigal settings “made spiritual” by his contemporary Aquilino Coppini who, early in the 17th century, had furnished them with starkly devotional texts. When in 1609 Coppini asserted these works possess a “wonderful power to move the passions exceedingly” he could have been writing of them today. The expressive dissonances of O infelix recessus and a grief-stricken Stabat Virgo Maria certainly caught the ear, yet the contemporary theorist Giovanni Artusi considered them too advanced and savaged their harmonic innovations in his book The Imperfections of Modern Music. Ex Cathedra gave them heartfelt accounts but the implicit fervour in the more elaborate Ure me Dominie (“Burn me, Lord, with your love”) was not always mirrored in singing which remained politely earthbound – words and phrasing needing to be more vividly shaped. Other short devotional works included offerings by Carlo Gesualdo and Guillaume Bouzignac, where word painting and haunting evocations of Christ’s final hours were given rapt expression, sometimes a shade too refined for the graphic intensity of the texts.

The concert began with Anerio’s Rispondi, Abramo; an oratorio-like work for chorus and soloists relating the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s a work of more historical interest than musical; a quality not helped by the singers facing one another and performing the work almost to themselves and which did this seldom-performed work few favours. They were joined by James Johnston (chamber organ) and Paula Chateauneuf (theorbo) and, together, brought polish to Anerio but it was frustrating to hear such gentle bass support – if only there had been an additional continuo instrument (providing a more sustained tone) harmonies would have had greater anchorage and carried more emotional weight. Some stylish solo contributions (Paul Bentley-Angell, Greg Skidmore and Angela Hicks) made for more rewarding listening. More Anerio arrived in the shape of Sedea lasso Gesù (St John’s account of the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus); its conservative idiom requiring more dramatic articulation than was present in this account to raise it above the ordinary.

Considerably more compelling were the performances that ended each half. Charpentier’s wonderful Le Reniement de St Pierre dramatizes Peter’s threefold denial of Christ and concludes with a harrowing choral portrayal of his remorse. It’s a work requiring expansive treatment of the text and no small degree of individual characterisation; elements partially fulfilled here in a building with little reverberation and a performance that drew variable solo singing with little direct communication with the audience. The final chorus, however, was exquisite; beautifully sung with perfect blend and intonation.

Much of the same could be said too for Carissimi’s 1649 setting of Jephte, a work credited with being one of the first, if not the first, oratorios ever written. To achieve victory in battle against the Ammonites, Jephte promises to sacrifice the first person he encounters on his return. He wins, only to be met by his daughter whose lament for her childless state is expressed in music of wondrously rich harmonies. As the heroic but battle-weary Jephte, Paul Bentley-Angell drew on an impressive emotional range, well-matched by an empathic Greg Skidmore and pure-voiced Katie Trethewey. Jeffrey Skidmore fashioned an understated and refined account that made clear the fervour, if not the drama, of this superb work.