Birmingham’s Good Friday St Matthew Passion has become an iconic fixture of Passiontide, and what a joy it was to be gathered, once again, in Symphony Hall to hear it for the first time since 2019. Jeffrey Skidmore has always sought to retain the integrity of the work, whilst developing and revitalising the programme, and in true Ex Cathedra fashion, bringing it right up-to-date.
This year was no exception, and whilst the Passion itself remained the central work, the concert included additional organ and choral works, culminating in a rousing hymn in which the audience were invited to participate. Whilst some might see this as ‘tampering’ with a West Midlands cultural institution, but all of these additional pieces truly enhanced the afternoon’s performance, never detracting from the mighty Bach work itself.
The programme opened with an organ work, Chorale Prelude on ‘Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig’ by Alec Roth, a composer whom Jeffrey Skidmore has championed over the years. Based on an original plainchant-type melody, the work grew in stature, setting the tone for the concert as a whole. It was executed with great poise and majesty by Rupert Jeffcoat on the Klais organ in Symphony Hall. At its conclusion, the organ seamlessly gave way to the choral version, translated as ‘Now we greet you, gentle Jesus’. This piece showcased not only Ex Cathedra, but also their Academy of Vocal Music and members of their community choirs. The Academy sang with professionalism and precision, a true reminder that the future of choral music is in very good hands.
The Roth works were perfectly matched and led without break into the St Matthew Passion. The emotionally-charged work was, as ever delivered with passion and conviction by both Ex Cathedra and their Baroque Orchestra. What always strikes me about their performances is their ability to achieve such incredible contrasts, with the delicate pianissimo sections suiting Symphony Hall acoustics so well. Jeffrey Skidmore is at the helm, but Ex Cathedra performances are a collective effort, Skidmore often needing merely minimal gestures to achieve such precise results.
To keep up-to-date with news and updates, and to receive my monthly newsletter, Creative Notes, full of content exclusive to subscribers, scroll down to add your name and email address below, or click here.
Special mention should be made of Bradley Smith as the Evangelist, who had the necessary conviction and presence to hold the whole work together. Similarly, Themba Mvula as Jesus commanded the role with emotion, his vocal quality resonant throughout all corners of Symphony Hall. Kate Trethewey as Soprano I had an exquisite voice which soared throughout the space. Skidmore always choreographs these performances in a way whereby the music runs seamlessly, with soloists, in the main, remaining as part of the choir. The emotional flow is never disturbed.
The baroque orchestra played with their usual panache, and special mention must be made of Juan Manuel Quintana on the viola da gamba, who played with customary vigour. There were, perhaps, one or two uncertain moments in the orchestra, but maybe we are too used to the precision and clarity of modern instruments to fully appreciate this?
The second half opened with a reading, in English, of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poem ‘Powers of God’, read by Themba Mvula. I wasn’t 100% convinced this worked, and it was perhaps the only time during the concert where I felt the emotional flow was disturbed. We were though, in seats where the spoken voice doesn’t carry as effectively. This reading was a departure from other performances, but as ever, sometimes we need to risk something new.
As a whole, the St Matthew Passion didn’t disappoint. Ex Cathedra under Jeffrey Skidmore once again delivered a memorable performance which had everything one could wish for from such an iconic work. At the end of the Passion, the music moved seamlessly into a performance of Jacob Handl’s Ecce Quomodo Moritur Justus. This was an excellent addition to the programme and showcased Ex Cathedra‘s ability to conquer such a diverse range of works. As the final chord resonated, the organ struck up with Bach’s Chorale Prelude on ‘Nun danket all Gott’ leading seamlessly into the chorale/hymn Now thank we all our God, in which the audience were invited to stand and sing.
The programme was well thought out and convincing. Jeffrey Skidmore has a unique ability to hold the audience, and alongside a programme which seamlessly leads one item into another, the mood is never disturbed. Never once was there a chance for a ‘coughing break’, something which would so have spoilt the performance.
ST MATTHEW PASSION
Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Friday 15th April 2022, 2pm
Bradley Smith Evangelist
Themba Mvula Jesus
Lawrence White Pilate
Margaret Lingas, Katie Trethewey Soprano I
Martha McLorinan Alto I
Imogen Russell Soprano II
Harriet Hougham-Slade Alto II
James Robinson Tenor II
Thomas Lowen Bass II
Jeffrey Skidmore conductor