The lure of Maria Cristina Kiehr was sufficient reason to head to Birmingham’s Symphony Hall for Ex Cathedra’s first “small scale” Messiah in a decade. Scale however is relative; compared with an excellent performance I heard a few years ago by the Early Opera Company with a choir of just eight, the forces here could perhaps be considered “medium scale”, comprising a chorus of nearly 50, 22 in the orchestra and seven soloists, although set against the cavernous Symphony Hall they made a relatively compact group.

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

Jeffrey Skidmore’s interesting programme notes explained that Messiah has played a long-standing and important role in the musical history of Birmingham. It was performed at the inaugural Birmingham Music Festival in 1768 and regularly thereafter until 1912. For this performance, and following the tradition in Handel’s day, the soloists were a mix of imported stars and several stepping out from the choir, but with somewhat mixed results. Maria Cristina Kiehr’s exquisitely delicate “I know that my Redeemer liveth” aside, some of the other contributions felt slightly under-powered, including that of Chilean tenor Rodrigo del Poso, whose lower notes were often lost, although perhaps my seat at the side of the hall contributed to that impression. The bass soloists fared rather better, starting with chorus member Edward Grint’s uplifting “The people that walked in darkness” which was smoothly sung and so well articulated that every word was clearly audible. Neither were there any sound projection issues with the choir which was on stunning form throughout the whole performance. All sections were crisp, precise and beautifully balanced, but Messiah, in my view, falls or soars on the soprano section and we could not have asked for better; “All we like sheep” was a classic example, with the fast runs simply floating above the secure lower parts, making the whole chorus light, flexible and touchingly profound. In contrasting style, “Since by man came death” illustrated clearly the togetherness and rounded sound of this top notch choir, whose excellent diction, aided by immaculate timing, made every word comprehensible.

The Ex Cathedra Baroque Orchestra dates from 1983-84, some 15 years after the choir was founded, and has a strong commitment to develop young early music specialist instrumentalists, many of whom also play with other period ensembles. The opening Sinfony started relatively leisurely, but from “Comfort ye” onwards, the orchestra settled into a lively but sensitive tempo, very much in sympathy with the soloists. The first violin section was particularly impressive, notably when accompanying the soloists, and the whole orchestra achieved both lightness and real forward momentum without ever over-rushing the pace.

There were four Skidmores listed in the programme, the conductor, a cellist, an alto and a bass soloist from the choir (Greg Skidmore) whose storming “The trumpet shall sound” duet with outstanding Baroque trumpeter Simon Munday brought real passion and vigour to this classic aria; the not inconsiderable proportion of the audience who left after the “Hallelujah” chorus should rue the day. In conclusion, although perhaps a slightly smaller venue would have allowed for a more focused experience, this absorbing performance of Messiah made a delightful start to the festive season.

***11