Ex Cathedra’s contribution to the St John’s Holy Week Festival might have been subtitled ‘I wouldn’t start from here’. The primary – slightly academic – goal of introducing an audience to 17th-century oratorio was somewhat subverted by the inclusion of seven of Claudio Monteverdi’s madrigals (made ‘holy’ by a contemporaneous replacement of their original secular Italian text with sacred Latin words by Aquilino Coppini), and the programming of Guillaume Bouzignac’s brief and inconsequential O Mors, ero mors tua seemed nothing more than a small gesture to prevent Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Le reniement de St Pierre from feeling lonely as the only French work in an otherwise Italian line-up.
The singing throughout was generally of a good standard, although Ex Cathedra took some risks in fielding only ten singers, as their strength is usually in the well-blended choral sound that their larger complement makes, and the blend was not always on-point, with the female voices sometimes swamping the tenors and basses. The soloists – taken from the ensemble – for the oratorios were of varying quality. Paul Bentley-Angell’s ‘Petrus’ in the Charpentier provided a solid contrast to the gentlest Jesus (only just audible) presented in the same piece by Declan Costello, but by the time Bentley-Angell took the title role in Giacomo Carissimi’s Jephte his voice had developed a more spread quality that was, at times, a touch harsh. Greg Skidmore, a known quantity in the early-music world, provided a solid tone throughout, although his account of ‘Fugite, cedite’ in Jephte needed a little extra heft in the lower register, that might have been supplied by the more sonorous voice of his fellow-bass Lawrence White. KatieTretheway had the lion’s share of solo as ‘Filia’ in Jephte; hers is a bright voice that works well in the top register, but it inclines to steeliness lower down.
In terms of the material presented, the two oratorios providing the most pleasure were Jephte and Le reniement de St Pierre. Carissimi goes to town on his word-painting for ‘ululate’ – the early appearance of the word marked by a delicious descending overlap of suspensions, and its subsequent use by the soloist is accompanied by little duet-echoes from a pair of sopranos; the tenderly executed staggered suspensions on ‘in carmine’ towards the end add further beguilement. Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s short account of Peter’s denial closes on an extended setting of the words ‘flevit amare’ (‘wept bitterly’) that piles suspension on suspension such that the basic musical material becomes a wriggling worm, impaled on a toothpick.
Respondi Abramo and Sedea lasso Gesù are two short dialogues by Giovanni Francesco Anerio depicting Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, and the woman of Samaria. Together with 94 other pieces, they make up Anerio’s 1619 Harmonic Theatre of Spiritual Madrigals from which the concert took its title. Suffice it to say, although the works were competently sung, their ordinariness (a good deal of recitative slightly leavened by bland polyphonic choruses) kindled no desire to seek out the other items in the collection. The oratorios were accompanied by a competently delivered continuo of organ (James Johnstone) and theorbo (Paula Chateauneuf), which alas, lacked a bass instrument to anchor it.
The Monteverdi madrigals, however, were the stars of the show, and highlighted not only the composer’s ravishing writing – that tiptoes close to outrageous chromaticism (and Sparge la morte, a sole example from Carlo Gesulado, demonstrated the exquisite discomfort when it goes all the way) – but allowed Ex Cathedra to play to their strength of whole-choir blend, producing achingly piled-on suspended entries (particularly in O infelix recessus and O Jesu mea vita), some fierce false relations (Stabat Virgo Maria) and satisfyingly lengthy resolutions.