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.

A Time to Dance

Alex Roth: A Time to Dance
Ex Cathedra. Jeffry Skidmore
Hyperion CDA68144. 71’52

A Time to Dance; Magnificat and Nunc dimittis ‘Hatfield Service’; Men & Angels.

The Birmingham based choir, Ex Cathedra has long been at the forefront of British choral music, notably through their educational work and concerts and recordings of early music and Baroque music from Central and South America, a particular research interest for their inspirational director, Jeffry Skidmore. But they also venture into more recent repertoire, as evidenced by their latest CD of music by Alex Roth.

Commissioned for the Summer Music Society of Dorset for their 50th anniversary, the cantata A Time to Dance was first performed by Ex Cathedra in 2012. It is in four sections, representing jointly the seasons and the times of day, with an opening Processional and Prologue and a concluding Epilogue and After-dance, and lasts about an hour. Another quadruple influence is present in the opening Processional, based on the ‘For every thing there is a season’ passage from Ecclesiastes and its emphasis on times, seasons, love and dance. The remaining sections are based on 29 poems, ranging from Ovid via Donne, Herrick, Blake, and Yeats to the more recent Robert Bridges. The music is influenced by Shakespeare, Bach and Jeffry Skidmore, with whom the composer has worked over recent years. Continue reading

A spy at The Globe

The Shakespeare Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse continued with its enterprising series of candle-lit musical events with ‘The Spy’s Choirbook’ (8 Feb 2015).  The four singers of Alamire (along with The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble) presenting extracts from the British Library’s sumptuous manuscript (Roy 8.g.vii) produced in Antwerp at the workshop of Petrus Imhoff, who changed his name to the more musically appropriate Alamire (A-la-mi-re, as he often signed his name).

Like many musicians of his time, Alamire was a spy who was well acquainted with many of the crowned heads of Europe, including Maximillian, Charles V and Christian II of Denmark.  He acted for Henry VIII against the exiled Yorkist pretender, Richard de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk.  He also presented Henry VIII with many musical gifts, including this enormous parchment manuscript, but amid accusations of counter-espionage he didn’t even receive thanks for his efforts, or his gifts.  It was therefore perhaps apt that it turns out that the manuscript was in fact second hand, having been originally intended for Louise XII of France and Anne of Brittany.  But, on the death of both of them, Alamire changed the dedication, and some of the words, to Henry and Catherine of Aragon who, like Louise and Anne, were desperate for a child.  And so it is that London now has a collection of 34 motets works by the likes of Mouton, Josquin, Isaac and de la Rue.

Alamire’s director, David Skinner, conducted and introduced the story behind the manuscript.  The whole manuscript has been recorded by substantially larger Alamire forces.  The singing (from Clare Wilkinson, Nicholas Todd, Greg Skidmore and Rob Macdonald) was outstanding, as was the instrumental contributions, although I found the tenor shawm a rather better blend with the cornett and sackbuts than the alto shawm.

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/03/30/a-spy-at-the-globe/]