Christmas concerts aiming to replicate a more secular version of the King’s College Cambridge Nine Lessons and Carols service, are thick on the ground in London; Ex Cathedra’s candle-lit addition to this on Thursday evening, under the able direction of Jeffrey Skidmore (with organist Alex Mason and harpist Lucy Wakeford), presented an inventive and delightful collection of music and readings. 21st-century works (such as Martin Bates’ Blessed are the peacemakers or Judith Bingham’s The Shepherd’s Gift) were mingled with more established seasonal favourites (Willcocks’ ever-popular Sussex Carol, Poston’s Jesus Christ the apple tree, and four pieces from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols) and spiced with some more folksy items sung with rustic gusto (Somerset Wassail).
Throughout, Ex Cathedra maintained the warm and solid tone that we have come to expect from this professional Birmingham-based choir, although there were occasional blips: the Bingham tended towards the tentativeness of unfamiliarity in places, and there were some odd disconnects of timing between the organ and choir – unsurprisingly, given the distance between the two – in Sussex Carol; the organ, for those of us more or less in the centre of St John’s, was occasionally too loud. But these are minor matters, as the evening as a whole was entertaining, surprising and professionally slick (the instant segues from one work to another were not only impressive, but made whole cloth out of a large number of contrasting pieces).
It was gratifying to hear three pieces by John Joubert, a much overlooked British composer (also Birmingham-based). His Torches was a staple of school choirs in the 1960s, but the two companion pieces, Joy in the morning (a bouncy and attractive setting of the carol sung by the field-mice in The Wind in the Willows) and the more austere O Lord, the maker of alle thing provided enjoyable contrast.
The contemporary works were also highly enjoyable, if somewhat constrained by their composers’ need to write somewhat in the warm-hug style needed for a Christmas piece. James MacMillan’s And lo, the angel of the Lord presented us with angels in the galleries of St John’s, sirening ‘Glory’ in a piece full of his trademark scotch snaps, which picked up on the Celtic decorations present in the previous solo performance of the original Irish Wexford Carol. Nico Muhly’s Whispered and revealed had a hint of Muhly’s countryman Samuel Barber about it, setting note clusters against lyric lines, underscored by a harp moto perpetuo. Roxanna Panufnik’s The call was full of tunes that rose from, and fell back into, the texture, an effect mirrored by the penultimate radiant major chord, whose notes then mutated to smudge into silence. The final contemporary piece was Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Long road, not a carol at all, but a love-song full of cluster chords and twinkling percussion, that has become part of Ex Cathedra’s regular repertoire; it was hauntingly performed by the choir surrounding half the audience, almost as an envoi.
The readings were very well chosen, and set the scene for each group of carols: Charles Causley’s The Angels’ Song, for example, made the perfect introduction to Rachmaninoff’s Lesser Doxology, whose ‘Slavas’ are indeed the angels singing praise; in a similar fashion, the reading from the ‘Dulce Domum’ chapter of Graeme’s The Wind in the Willows led straight into Joubert’s Joy in the morning, the carol that Mole and Ratty then hear.
The concert (with variations in the pieces from venue to venue) is on tour, and Ex Cathedra will be presenting it in St Paul’s Church, Birmingham from 19 to 23 of December.