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XL – In 40 Parts - Music by Alec Roth, Tallis, Striggio and Gabriel Jackson: Ex Cathedra, Jeffrey Skidmore, Town Hall, Birmingham, 31. 1.2010 (JQ)

Alec Roth: Sol justitiae (2009)T
Thomas Tallis: Spem in alium, Te lucis ante terminum
Alec Roth: Earthrise (Orbis Oriens) (2010) - world première
Alessandro Striggio Ecce beatem lucem
Thomas Tallis: The Eighth Tune – God grant we grace
Gabriel Jackson (b. 1962): Sanctum est verum lumen (2005)
Thomas Tallis: The Third Tune – Why fumeth in fight, Sing and glorify (1610)

Last November I attended an excellent performance of The Dream of Gerontius in Birmingham Town Hall (see review) as part of Ex Cathedra’s fortieth anniversary season. Almost exactly two months later to the day the choir reassembled in the hall to give a very different programme as their ruby anniversary celebrations continue.

It seems so obvious to perform choral works in forty parts for such an anniversary. But how many choirs would be capable of performing one piece of unaccompanied forty-part music, let alone several? And it should be remembered that although Ex Cathedra is very professional in all that it does, it is not a fully professional choir even though quite a number of its members are professional singers. Over the years, under the leadership of Jeffrey Skidmore, Ex Cathedra has developed a significant reputation for the performance of pre-classical repertoire, much of it little known, and they’ve also given a platform to a good deal of music of our own time. This programme included examples of both of these traits.

The programme had been very shrewdly devised by Jeffrey Skidmore so it’s appropriate to discuss the pieces in the order in which they were heard

Alec Roth’s short piece, Sol justitiae, made a very suitable introit, not least since it gave us an opportunity to sample his choral writing ahead of the major work that was to follow. Sol justitiae is a setting of a Latin evening hymn by James Barmby (1823-1897) and Roth’s piece was sung just a few weeks previously at Ex Cathedra’s traditional pre-Christmas concert in Birmingham Cathedral. It’s a grave and rather beautiful piece. It struck me as dark, though not in any oppressive sense but rather in the sense of gloom before the anticipated light dawns. Twice in the piece a solo soprano cuts through the dense choral textures and I wondered if that sound was intended to symbolise a ray of light beginning to illuminate the darkness.

I referred to this Roth piece as an introit for a very particular reason. Prior to the concert I’d assumed that the celebrated Spem in alium would be the last piece we’d hear – so, in a way, it was, as we shall see – and I was rather surprised to find it as the second item on the programme. But Jeffrey Skidmore knew what he was doing. He began Spem in alium almost immediately after Sol justitiae, allowing no time for applause. The music is completely different but I thought the juxtaposition worked brilliantly. Indeed, though Spem in alium begins fairly tentatively it still made for an illuminating contrast after the Roth piece. Previously I’ve only ever experienced performances of this great Tallis work in churches and on several of those occasions the singers have been split into eight physically separate groups. Here we were in a secular, albeit sympathetic acoustic and the singers were all ranged, two deep, in a horseshoe on the stage so there was no real separation. But the “loss” of a resonant church acoustic was offset by the greater degree of clarity that was possible in the Town Hall acoustic. And I was pleasantly surprised by how much differentiation Skidmore was able to achieve between the eight constituent groups of his choir. That was a tribute to the skill of the singers and the expertise of the conductor. Skidmore kept the music moving forward with good purpose yet at the same time his pacing was so well judged that the majesty of the music was properly realised. Spem in alium is a demanding work but Ex Cathedra rose to all its challenges and surmounted them in this very fine performance.

Again without allowing applause to disturb the musical sequence, the choir sang Tallis’s short Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum. Nowadays, when we’re so used to hearing pieces such as this sung by small choirs like The Sixteen it’s something of a rarity to hear a performance by a choir of some sixty-eight voices. However, in his programme note Jeffrey Skidmore, who has a fine reputation for scholarship, pointed out that large cathedral and court choirs were by no means unusual in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This performance found what seemed to be a very practical media via with the plainchant verses sung by a small group of singers and the full choir deployed in the central verse and there was no sense in this well-turned performance that the choral forces were too large. Once again, the programme planning was shrewd for this short Tallis piece acted as the perfect bridge between Spem in alium and the other large scale work in the first half.

Earthrise (Orbis Oriens) was commissioned for the occasion. It’s a substantial piece, lasting at least twenty-five minutes. It’s cast in three parts, which are sung without a break and it’s scored, like the Tallis, for eight unaccompanied five-part choirs. Writing in the programme, Alec Roth said that the piece had been inspired by the realisation that 2009 marked not just Ex Cathedra’s fortieth anniversary but also that of the moon landings and he recalled in particular the impact made on him by the remarkable Earth Rise photograph, taken by the crew of Apollo 8.

Taking a selection of words from the Psalms, the Prophecy of Isaiah, and the Old Testament Books of Job and of Proverbs, Roth has woven these texts into what seems to me, at a first hearing, to be a profound and very moving meditation on the majesty of the Earth and man’s comparative smallness. The work is prefaced by a setting of one of the Advent ‘Great O’ antiphons and a second of these antiphons is used to round off the whole work.

After a quite simple, homophonous setting of the Antiphon, the music of Part I is more dramatic. For much of the time, the music is impelled forward by jagged, irregular rhythms and even when the music is quiet there’s a lot of energy to it – at one point, as the tension mounts, the choir sing upward glissandi followed by a unison stamp of the feet. This whole section evidently required great precision and the singers articulated it with great confidence and accuracy.

The second section begins with the words ‘Ecce, o ecce’ and in the opening pages Roth uses soft, luminous harmonies, weaving them into an astonishing wash of choral texture. Thereafter the movement is slow in tempo and often the dynamics are quite subdued. The text is from Isaiah, Chapter 40, beginning “Lift up your eyes on high and see; who created these things?” Roth’s music is full of awe and mystery and this entire section, most imaginatively written for voices, left a profound impression.

Opening with a tenor solo - very well sung – the final section is, in the composer’s words, “a plea for true wisdom and understanding..” When the full choir sings much is made of a slow, impressive hymn-like melody. This is decorated, with increasing complexity, by scalic figures, often sung by the higher voices and which my wife correctly identified as having been inspired by gamelan music – of which Alec Roth has considerable experience. This hymn-like melody keeps recurring and eventually achieves an impressive climax. After Part III the Advent antiphon ‘O sapientia’ provides a real sense of completion - musically, emotionally and philosophically –finally resolving onto a warm major chord.

The composer, who was present to acknowledge the enthusiastic reception for his new work was clearly delighted with the performance it received; and rightly so. Ex Cathedra sang it with great assurance and evident commitment and in Jeffrey Skidmore the piece clearly had the best possible advocate. Earthrise made a strong impression on me and I’m impatient to hear it again.

After the interval we heard Striggio’s forty-part motet, Ecce beatem Lucem. The piece was probably composed in 1561 and, famously, is believed to have led to the Duke of Norfolk commissioning Tallis to write what became Spem in alium as an English riposte. For this piece the choir was placed in the choir seats above the stage so more physical separation was possible, which worked very well. Striggio’s piece is held by many to be inferior to Tallis’s achievement. That may be so but it’s still an impressive creation and here it received an exuberant, confident performance. I can’t recall hearing the piece live before and it was good to hear it cheek by jowl, as it were, with the Tallis.

Sanctum est verum lumen by Gabriel Jackson was written for Ex Cathedra and first performed by them at the 2005 Lichfield Festival. I’d heard it before on a fine CD by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain (see review ) and I was eager to hear it in live performance. It’s a remarkable piece in which Jackson’s music gives the impression of what I can only call “aural light.” The composer handles the complexities of writing for forty vocal parts with great assurance and Ex Cathedra delivered this challenging piece with great skill. It was a thrill to hear this superbly imagined piece in concert and the composer, who was present, was rightly accorded a warm reception.

In a nice touch, the second of two of Tallis’s tunes from Archbishop Parker’s Psalter discreetly marked another anniversary. This was the tune used by Vaughan Williams in his great ‘Tallis’ Fantasia. It was pleasing to hear the original, especially since 2010 marks the centenary of the first performance of RVW’s masterpiece for string orchestra.

I said earlier that I’d been surprised that the programme wasn’t scheduled to finish with Spem in alium. But it did – and it didn’t! In another enterprising piece of programming Jeffrey Skidmore gave us what must be a relatively rare chance to hear Sing and glorify, a contrafactum of Spem in alium. This was a reworking of Tallis’s music with English words on the occasion of the investiture of Prince Henry, eldest son of King James I, in 1610. What surprised me about this performance was the effect that different words have on the same music. I don’t think Skidmore took the piece at a faster tempo than the one he’d adopted for Spem in alium but that was the impression. That I can only put down to the word underlay and, in particular, to the different syllabic character of the words – the English version has more syllables in several lines and this seemed to impart a greater energy to the music – which is appropriate since the English is a more overtly celebratory text. I wasn’t completely convinced and the contrafactum seemed to lack some of the grandeur of the original – it’s not the same when one hears the injunction “Henry live” instead of the word “respice”. However, it was a shrewd move to end this programme with an exuberant, celebratory offering such as this.

There’s plenty more to come before Ex Cathedra’s anniversary season comes to an end and full details of future concerts can be found on their website. However, in many respects this concert typified the enterprise and excellence of this choir. And in Earthrise they have brought about the creation of an important new work. In these straightened times it isn’t easy to source funding for recording projects but I do hope that from somewhere they’ll be able to attract the funding to record Alec Roth’s new piece and perhaps also the Christmas piece written for them by James MacMillan and premièred by them just a few weeks ago. I haven’t heard the MacMillan but Roth’s new work is deserving of a wide audience.

Any recordings are for the future, however. For now, this was a marvellous concert. The programme was imaginatively planned and expertly performed. The juxtaposition of Renaissance music and some very fine music of our own time worked brilliantly. And the large and appreciative audience had the good fortune to be present at the first performance of an eloquent and important new piece.

John Quinn

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