The Organ

Ex Cathedra

Ex Cathedra
Birmingham Oratory
March 16th (4 stars)

Whether it was pragmatic resourceful­ness or a magical making of virtue out of necessity, Saturday’s concert from Ex Cathedra was among the most brilliant in this expert chamber choir’s near 40-year history.

Director Jeffrey Skidmore has the enviable gift of concocting a witches’ brew of fas­cination in his programming, and it would be interesting to know whether the chicken or the egg came first here.

He has long had a fascination for Monteverdi’s 1610 publication in Venice of sacred music, with the derivation of much of its content from secular sources. Put alongside this the reluctance of the Orat­ory Fathers to permit secular perform­ance within their beautiful church (as a fully paid-up Catholic I allow myself to quest­ion their stance – I doubt Jesus would have been so prescriptive), and Skidmore found a wonderful solution.

For the first time in my knowledge, the magnificent Upper Room (what a resonant name) in the Oratory cloisters was used for performances of Monteverdi madrigals, one-to-a-part, and showing what a fab­ulous acoustic the room possesses. We must hear more music in here.

And down in the Oratory proper we heard full choral Latinisations of these works, made by Monteverdi’s contem­por­ary, the priest Aquilino Coppini. Often the subject-matter from the profane moved easily into the sacred.

These “madrigals made spiritual” pun­ctuated the movements of Monteverdi’s Mass In Illo Tempore from that 1610 treas­ure-trove, ending with the pithy Magnificat from that year.

Throughout the evening organist Philip Scriven devised imaginative and tonally-useful organ improvisations, and Eligio Quinteiro supported sensitively with his resonant theorbo.

The whole evening was an enriching educational experience, and I will treasure the programme-book. Arts funders take note.

Christopher Morley