Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Ex Cathedra / Osborne / Skidmore @ Milton Court Concert Hall, London

27 September 2015

Ex-Cathedra(Photo: Paul Arthur)

Ex Cathedra
(Photo: Paul Arthur)

On the face of it, interleaving the fifteen movements of Rachmaninov’s unaccompanied choral All-night Vigil (‘Vespers’) with a selection of his Preludes and Études-tableaux for solo piano is an attractive idea – especially when performed by candlelight. Although the ‘Vespers’ is often presented as a top-to-tail set of movements, in a liturgical context, the movements would be dispersed throughout several hours of prayer and meditation (hence ‘All-night Vigil’), and well-chosen piano works would act to provide a reminder of this in a more secular context. Sunday night’s concert at the Guildhall School of Music’s Milton Court Concert Hall achieved moderate success with the combination.

Ex Cathedra under the direction of Jeffrey Skidmore gave an exemplary performance of Rachmaninov’s most popular choral work; there were moments of magical sonority from the low parts – particularly in Blazhen muzh and Velichit dusha moya Gospoda, where all of the voices were in perfect balance. The directors of some recordings of this piece have clearly never listened to Russian choirs in performance, but Skidmore showed that he understands the idiom, and used changes in tempo and volume to great effect (although perhaps the wonderful build-up throughout The Great Doxology could have been given even more rubato, and there were occasions where more urgency would have worked). The dry acoustic also favoured the more rhythmic passages in the work in movements such as Khvalite imya Gospodne and Blagosloven esi Gospodi, and the ‘bell’ effects in Shestopsalmiye came across well. The only criticism was one of balance: whereas the lower voices produced an enticingly warm tone, the soprano sound was inclined to be hard and unyielding – and in the loud passages, overwhelming. Jeremy Budd’s solo passages – particularly in Nyne otpushchaeshi – were hauntingly plaintive, and Martha McLorinan’s full-bodied mezzo complemented the performance of Blagoslovi, dushe moya perfectly.

Steven Osborne’s interpretation of the piano works was masterly– again, his sensitive use of rubato allowed them to shine as the small works of genius they are. On the whole, they complemented the choral works well – picking up either on key (so the C-major Étude-Tableau provided an apposite introduction to the ‘Amen’ of Blagoslovi, dushe moya), or inserting a change in mood (the darkly turbulent E-flat minor Étude-Tableau allowing a suitable break between the two contemplative movements Nyne otpushchaeshi and Bogoroditse Devo).

Ultimately,the biggest challenge was provided by the space – as it was always going to be with such a combination of timbres. The All-night Vigil is written for a large space with a generous bloom; the piece uses this to allow passages to emerge from the echo of the earlier material and form seemingly out of nowhere; piano music, however, requires a much drier space, or else it becomes a blurred confusion of notes. Milton Court takes no prisoners with the sound produced; the acoustic is very dry and allows every note to be heard – perfect for judging student performance, and perfect for a piano recital, but, alas, it did nothing to improve the hard soprano sound of the choir, and overall, was not nearly lively enough to allow the All-night Vigil the acoustic air-brushing that the piece needs to work properly. In the end, the candlelight could provide only visual ambience; the religious music became a collection of beautifully performed phrases, but, abetted by the constant secular reminder of the piano interpolations, sadly lost much of its spiritual dimension.

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