Ex Cathedra: In a Strange Land

In a Strange Land
Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore
Cadogan Hall, 26 April 2017

The latest in the Choral at Cadogan series of concerts featured the Birmingham based choir, Ex Cathedra, with their founder and director, Jeffrey Skidmore. Since they started in 1969, they have built an enviable reputation for their performing and educational work, and the encouragement they give to younger singers. On this occasion, they fielded 10 singers for music reflecting issues of captivity, religious conflict, freedom and a yearning for homeland, based on the verse from Psalm 137, How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?, . Their wide-ranging programme, including some of Ex Cathedra’s greatest hits, explored the search for heaven and earth in the Old and the New World during the 16th and 17th centuries with music from England, France, Holland, and Spain, together with the world of the Aztecs and Incas in present day Mexico and Bolivia.The first half was built around William Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices together with pieces by Gesualdo, Lobo, Tallis and Victoria, with Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla’s Missa Ego flos campi forming the focus for the second half combined with music from the Latin American Baroque. It started with a short processional from the rear doors of the stage singing Thoinot Arbeau’s Belle qui tiens ma vie from his 1589 Orchésographie, a treatise on Renaissance ballroom dance, although on this occasion the mood was a curious mixture of a high church ritual and a prelude to some sort of pagan sacrifice, the steady boom of a large drum adding to the mood. To reduce my belief in the authenticity of the procession, the second half opened in exactly the same manner, to the same drum, but on this occasion with a very brief extract from the famous Hanacpachap cussicuinin, the first known piece of vocal polyphony publishes in the New World, published in 1631. At least this piece was intended as a processional hymn, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Whether such a procession in early 17th century Peru would have looked, and sounded, exactly the same as a late-16th century social ball in France is open to debate, but I don’t suppose it troubled the Cadogan Hall audience.

After a brief pause in Amsterdam for a burst of Sweelinck, we arrived in England for pieces by Byrd, Weelkes, Tomkins, Tallis and Gibbons. The gap between the Gloria and Credo of Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices was filled, not by a sacred motet, but by Weelkes curious 1600 madrigal Thule, the Period of Cosmography / The Andalusian Merchant, taking us first to the ‘Gates of Hell’, aka the sulfurous fires of Hekla in Iceland, and then to the volcanic fire-island of Fogo in the Cape Verde Islands, complete with ‘flying fishes’.  The Credo was followed by three pieces full of intense emotion: Tomkins’ When David Heard and Tallis’s metrical Psalm Why fum’th in fight (of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia fame) and If ye love me.  Byrd’s lovely Ave verum corpus was an appropriate filler for the gap between the Benedictus and Agnus Dei, the magical O dulcis, O pie sequence being particularly beautiful, and well sung.

Ex Cathedra have recorded many CDs of South American music, based on Jeffrey Skidmore’s research there, and it was obvious from the second half of this concert that they are very much at home in this lively and colourful repertoire. The contrast between the rather intimate English music and the flamboyance of the South American was evident in the double-choir Missa Ego flos campi by Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla, Maestro de Capilla of Puebla Cathedral in the early 17th century. We know that in the Cathedral the large choir of 14 boys and 28 men was arranged either side of a wide space, facing each other, encouraging and enhancing antiphonal effects. Sadly, as is so often the case in concerts of antiphonal choral music, the singers of Ex Cathedra stood very close to each other facing the audience, making the vocal switching from side to side far less prominent. Even the BBC microphones (positioned far closer than the audience) didn’t manage to pick up much of a contrast between the left and right hand choirs. Despite that, Padilla’s music was thrilling as he switched between mainstream polyphony of his Iberian homeland and the bouncy rhythms of the native music of South America. The Credo is particularly fine, with its insistent repetitions of the word Credo.

The percussion was out again, more appropriately on this occasion, for the 14th century pilgrim virelai Polorum regina from the Llibre Vermell de Montserrat, with soprano Katie Tretheway as the very effective soloists. Equally effective were either Lousie Prickett or Amy Wood, soprano soloist in the gentle lullaby Xicochi conetzintle. After the very bouncy Convidando esta la noche, with the distinctive Spanish 123 123 1-2-3 rhythm, the evening ended with a recessional, to the anonymous Dulce, Jesús mío, as they retreated, the slowly closing doors making it sound as though they ended up somewhere in Sloane Square.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and can be heard for a limited period in the UK here. Ex Cathedra’s upcoming concerts can be found here.

Programme
Orchésographie de Thoinot Arbeau Belle qui tiens ma vie
Genevan Psalter Estans assis aux rives aquatiques
Sweelinck Estans assis aux rives aquatiques
Byrd Mass for Four Voices, Ave verum corpus, 
Weelkes Thule, the Period of Cosmography, The Andalusian Merchant
Tomkins When David Heard
Tallis Why fum’th in fight, If ye love me
Gibbons O clap your hands together

Ritual, Lima  Hanac pachap cussicuinin
Victoria Super flumina Babylonis a 8
Padilla Missa Ego flos campi 
14th century Spanish Polorum regina
Fernandes Xicochi conetzintle
Symbolico Catholico Indiano Capac eterno Dios
Pascual Oy es día de placer y de cantar!
Lobo Versa est in luctum
Hernández Sancta Maria, e!
Zéspedes Convidando esta la noche
Anon Dulce, Jesús mío

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