London Festival of Baroque Music

London Festival of Baroque Music
St John’s, Smith Square, Grosvenor Chapel. 10-18 May 2019

The 2019 London Festival of Baroque Music is the 36th in a festival series that for most of its life was under the banner of the Lufthansa Festival. It is now managed by Richard Heason, director of St John’s, Smith Square, its principal venue. This year’s theme was ‘Crossing the Border’, exploring themes of travel and discovery. The festival website notes that “Throughout history musicians and musical ideas have crossed borders freely and frequently. Although national styles and identities have always developed and often have been celebrated in music, the musicians who have created and performed this music have honed their skills and talents by exploring influences and characteristics from a wide range of influences”. In these complex UK times, it was a timely reminder of the importance of travel for music and musicians. The Baroque era was a particularly important one for international cultural influences, not least in the UK where many continental musicians moved to England, and the aristocratic Grand Tour, one result of which was the foundation of the art collections of many 18th-century country houses.  Continue reading

Bach: St John & Matthew Passions

JS Bach: St John Passion
 The Choir of Westminster Abbey, St James’ Baroque, James O’Donnell
Westminster Abbey. 16 April 2019

JS Bach: St Matthew Passion
Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore
St John’s, Smith Square. 17 April 2019

Hearing Bach’s two best-known Passions on successive evenings in two nearby venues, and with contrasting performers, gave me a chance to compare aspects of the two Passions and performing styles. One was given by a choir with a 600-year history, the other by a choir approaching its 50th anniversary.  Both used period instrument orchestras. They were given in very different conditions to the performances of Bach’s day, and to very different groups of people – Bach to an involved congregation with a reasonable unified belief system, us as a passive audience with a variety of beliefs. However much a present-day believer might know the story that Bach sets to music, few will understand the context of early 18th-century Lutheran theological thought in Saxony. Non-believers or doubters will find the text at best puzzling, and at worse an illogical fabrication based on generations of earlier and equally illogical myth-makers. Continue reading

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.

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. Continue reading

MacMillan: Seven Angels

MacMillan: Seven Angels
Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore, Martha McLorinan
St Giles Cripplegate, 15 October 2016

The first of a two Sunday Barbican concerts focussing on the choral music of Sir James MacMillan took place on Saturday afternoon in the medieval church of St Giles Cripplegate, on the opposite side of the Barbican lakes from the main concert hall and theatre. It featured the London premiere of MacMillan’s Seven Angels, commissioned by the Birmingham based Ex Cathedra and its director Jeffrey Skidmore, and first performed in Birmingham last year. The piece stemmed from an informal discussion between MacMillan and Skidmore, both Elgar fans, on the uncompleted ‘Last Judgement’ conclusion of Elgar’s intended trilogy, which started with The Apostles and The Kingdom.

Although bearing no relation to Elgar’s surviving sketches, MacMillan took similar inspiration from the Book of Revelation, one Continue reading

Brazilian Adventures – Ex Cathedra

Brazilian Adventures
Ex Cathedra
, Jeffrey Skidmore
Hyperion CDA68114. 77’46

José Maurício Nunes Garcia: Missa pastoril para a noite de natal;
André da Silva Gomes: Missa a 8 vozes e instrumentos;
José Joaquim Emerico Lobo de Mesquita: Padre nosso, Ave Maria, Gloria;
Luís Álvares Pinto: Beata virgo, Oh! Pulchra es, Lição de solfejo;
Theodoro Cyro de Souza: Ascendit Deus; Anon: Matais de incêndios

I vividly remember a concert that Ex Cathedra gave in London about 10 years ago when they performed music by the Bolivian composer Juan de Araujo. At the time, a number of groups had been exploring South American music of the baroque ere, but Ex Cathedra was the only one that really seemed to understand it. One group preceded their concert with a talk by a South American specialist who spoke enthusiastically about the use of percussion instruments, and then proceeded with a concert with no percussion at all! The sensitive and musical use of percussion was one of the many aspects of the music that Ex Cathedra got exactly right. However percussion doesn’t get as much of a look as in their earlier concerts, or related CDs.

A reflection of those earlier Ex Cathedra takes on South American music can be heard on tracks 1 and 22 of this CD, Continue reading

London Festival of Baroque Music – Day 2

‘Women in Baroque Music’
St John’s, Smith Square, 16  May 2015

‘Canto dell dame’
Concerto Soave
María Cristina Kiehr soprano, Jean- Marc Aymes, harpsichord, organ & director.

On the cover of the festival programme book are the words “Joy / Passion / Religion / Love / Death / Adoration / Intensity. The Saturday afternoon concert of 17th century Italian music given by Concerto Soave included all of those aspects, sometimes in the same piece. Featuring Concerto Soavefive female composers, the music ranged from the very beginning of the Baroque up to the end of the 17th century. The earliest composer was Francesca Caccini (1587-1641), daughter of Giulio Caccini (represented here by Peter Philips’ harpsichord transcription of his Amarillo, mia Bella). Francesca Caccini made her debut aged 13 at the Medici Court, singing at the wedding of Henri IV of France to a Medici bride. After time in France she returned to become the leading female singer in Florence. Apart from one opera (the earliest known one by a woman) her only surviving music was published in 1618. The three pieces demonstrated the early recitativo style of Continue reading