Harmonic Spiritual Theatre

Harmonic Spiritual Theatre
Sacrifice, betrayal, passion – The Birth of Oratorio

Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore
St John’s, Smith Square, 26 March 2018

Following the mostly secular early evening concert by the Choir of Royal Holloway (reviewed here), the St John’s, Smith Square Holy Week Festival continued with a more sacred, although not entirely Holy Week based, concert by the Birmingham based choir Ex Cathedra. The first part of the rather complex three-part title of the event comes from the title of Giovanni Anerio’s 1619 Teatro armonico spirituale di madrigal (Harmonic Theatre of Spiritual Madrigals)14 of the 62 pieces are in the form of dialogues, and two examples opened each half of the concert, Rispondi, Abramo, setting the story of Abraham and Isaac to music and Sedea lasso Gesù, reflecting the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.

The latter part of the concert title reflected the early days of the development of the early Baroque oratorio, inspired by the Roman Oratory of Filippo Neri, and consisting of semi-theatrical presentations of Bible stories through the musical use of recitative and arias with continuo accompaniment. As well as the Anerio’s examples, each half of the concert ended with large-scale oratorios by Charpentier (Le reniement de St Pierre) and Carissimi (Jepthe). Inserted between these early oratorios were two groups of the sometimes very secular Monteverdi madrigals ‘made spiritual’ by Aquilino Coppini, published between 1607-9 a few years after the original publications of Monteverdi’s madrigal Books IV and V. A close friend of Monteverdi, Coppini wrote that he saw in Monteverdi’s music “… a wonderful power to move the passions exceedingly”. His alteration of the texts is extremely well done, matching Monteverdi’s original use of vowel sounds and textural accents.

The unforced tone of the ten singers of Ex Cathedra was attractive, although it occasionally came over as a little reticent, notably in the chorus sections. There were some excellent individual contributions. particularly from soprano Angela Hicks, the unaffected clarity of her voice and her impressive use of ornaments proving ideal in her portrayals of the boy Isacco in Rispondi, Abramo, the Samaritan woman in Sedea lasso Gesù and as soloist in the Monteverdi/Coppini Ure me, Somine. Tenor Declan Costello was a gentle Jesus in the Charpentier oratorio on the denial of Peter, while Greg Skidmore provided a solid bass in Charpentier’s Narrator and in Jephte.

Katie Tretheway portrayed the unfortunate daughter of Jephte, notably in the concluding lament as she bewails her virginity prior, so she thought, to becoming a burnt offering to God. In her virginal circumstances, and given her concerns, I can think of more interesting ways of spending your last two months on earth. Carissimi doesn’t even give her the biblical redemption in his oratorio, so the evening finished with the weeping children of Israel.

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for an unspecified future broadcast.

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