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Joy In The Morning: Ex Cathedra XL at Christmas
Alec ROTH (b. 1948) Unborn: A Processional Introit [5:07]
Trad. Irish Wexford Carol [2:24]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) In the bleak midwinter [5:16]
John GARDNER (b. 1917) The holly and the ivy [2:13]
John JOUBERT (b. 1927) Joy in the morning [4:25]
John GARDNER Tomorrow shall be my dancing day [1:59]
Harold DARKE (1888-1976) In the bleak midwinter [5:09]
Naji HAKIM (b. 1955) Noël! [3:28]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) A Christmas Caroll [7:40]
Tomás PASCUAL (1595-1635) ¡Oy es dia de placer y de cantar! [1:42]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) For he shall give his angels [2:44]
Giovanni GABRIELI (c1555 -1612) O magnum mysterium [4:37]
Felix MENDELSSOHN When Jesus, our Lord [2:11]
Felix MENDELSSOHN There shall be a star [4:58]
Benjamin BRITTEN This little Babe [1:31]
Alec ROTH Epilogue: Child of son [2:53]
Trad. Scottish arr. Peter HUNT O horo eeree caidil gu Lō [2:55]
Franz GRÜBER (1787-1863) Stille Nacht [3:49]
Martin BATES (b. 1951) Three Songs for Christmas [5:53]
Trad. Lapland Ole leloila [0:58]
Trad. English arr David WILLCOCKS (b. 1919) Sussex Carol [1:43]
Trad. arr, Jeffrey SKIDMORE (b. 1951) Jubilate [1:55]
Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore
Andrew Fletcher (organ)
rec. St. Paul’s Church, Birmingham, July 2009
ORCHID CLASSICS ORC100008 [75:33] 
Experience Classicsonline


This disc is really quite special. It would be a terrible shame to overlook it in the avalanche of Christmas issues.

Ex Cathedra was founded by Jeffrey Skidmore in 1969. The group is therefore celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year (2009), which accounts for the “XL” in the disc’s title. As well as the main choir the name encompasses a number of different groups, including a “consort” of eight to twelve voices and an early music group using period instruments. This is the first time I have heard Ex Cathedra but I can confidently say it will not be the last. On this showing it is an absolutely superb choir. The programme is a wide-ranging one, and the group enters into the spirit and style of each piece with pretty much equal success. All the virtues of the finest choirs are here, particularly the spot-on tuning, and with the added element of an infectious joy in the music-making which generally comes only from amateur singers. Jeffrey Skidmore is clearly the guiding hand here, and I offer him my heartiest congratulations.

Some of the pieces are given with organ, splendidly played by Andrew Fletcher, and Frances Kelly provides some lovely harp playing. There is some fine period instrument and percussion playing too, from musicians too numerous to list here. The booklet provides the words of the entire programme and carries an endearing and informative note from the conductor.

This is a superb disc, then, and little more really need be said. The only feature I would want to change is to do with the programming. I’m slightly allergic to extracts, and wish there were fewer here. But that’s my only gripe, and a very personal one at that.

Unborn is a beautiful and effective processional piece to words by Vikram Seth. It features a solo tenor, a drum which marks time and an organ-accompanied chorus which haunts the mind long after the piece is finished. It is an extract from an oratorio entitled The Traveller, and a second extract later in the programme is used as a kind of recessional. Alec Roth was a new name to me, but this piece makes me want to explore his other works. Special mention must be made of Susanna Vango, the soprano soloist in the Wexford Carol. Both here and in the lovely Scottish lullaby O horo eeree caidil gu Lō - surely one of those gems choral conductors tend to pass around amongst themselves - she sings with an easy, folk-inflected style which is both beautiful and very touching. The harp accompaniments are lovely. I find the performance of Britten’s In the bleak mid-winter, taken from his astonishing, youthful masterpiece, A Boy Was Born, somewhat robust and lacking in intimacy and mystery. It’s not how I would have done it, that’s all. John Gardner seems to have taken the words “the playing of the merry organ” as his starting point when setting The Holly and the Ivy. It’s very short and based on an absurdly simple idea. Perhaps it’s just absurd, full stop. I had no choice but to listen to it again straight away, and I think I must have heard it ten or twelve times since the disc arrived. It gladdens the heart, as does John Joubert’s Joy in the Morning, a setting of words from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. The setting makes much effective use of repetition of the word “joy” and sets considerably greater technical challenges than does the same composer’s ubiquitous and much-loved Torches. The outstanding choir squares up to these challenges most successfully, as they also do in John Gardner’s equally delightful Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. The classic Darke In the bleak mid-winter sets different challenges: unanimity of spirit is what’s wanted, and here it is in spades in this lovely performance. Haji Nakim’s Noël sounds more like an original composition than an arrangement, and it comes as no surprise, once one has heard this highly charged, richly perfumed music, to learn that the Lebanese composer is in fact an organist who followed Messiaen as organist at the church of La Trinité in Paris and who studied with Jean Langlais. Kenneth Leighton’s big, serious piece, a setting of Herrick, seems a model of restraint after this. It is a particularly fine example of this composer’s extreme sensitivity in word setting, and there is an ecstatic quality to the music which recalls Howells. It receives an outstanding performance.

The following group of pieces demonstrates the breadth of styles included in this collection. Two pieces of early music, by Pascual (with percussion) and Gabrieli (with brass) are included alongside three pieces by Mendelssohn, the first an extract from Elijah, the second and third from Christus. There shall be a star was a particular pleasure, bringing back many memories of singing the same piece myself in school Christmas concerts. Frances Kelly returns with her harp to accompany a short extract from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. All these pieces, different as they are, are given with the same easy mastery, though for this listener it is the Mendelssohn singing that most stands out.

The rest of the programme features a multilingual Silent Night which demonstrates better than anything else on the disc the superb tuning and unanimity of spirit of this choir. There is some traditional singing from Lapland - the singers are calling in the reindeer here! - as well as David Willcocks’ adorable setting of the Sussex Carol, familiar to all users of the green volume of the Oxford Book of Carols, taken, for my tastes, a little too quickly here. The programme ends with a work composed by the conductor. It begins with a bit of cod-baroque polyphony, but proceeds and closes in, shall we say, an unexpected way.

It only remains to mention the Three Songs for Christmas by Martin Bates, another name new to me. We learn from the booklet that he was the choir’s rehearsal pianist for many years, and so we might expect him to understand perfectly the strengths of the group. This does not explain his easy mastery of choral writing, however, nor the musical language based strictly on tonality but with piquant harmonic touches judiciously - and deliciously - added to the mix. There are touching moments in these three songs, and liberal doses of humour too. There are even touches of jazz, and all of this within a sound-world which resembles that of no other composer. It is music that deserves the widest possible currency.

William Hedley 

see also review by Jon Quinn

 
 


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