EX CATHEDRA | La voix humaine review

Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Poulenc and Duruflé:  Frances Bourne (mezzo soprano); Eamonn Dougan (baritone); Andrew Skidmore (cello); Alexander Mason (organ); Ex Cathedra conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore. Worcester Cathedral 27.01. 2007 (JQ)

Established by Jeffrey Skidmore in 1969, Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra is now one of the UK’s leading choirs. However, there is much more to Ex Cathedra than this. The name now covers not only a choir but also a vocal consort, a period instrument ensemble and, crucially, a thriving educational programme, which is aimed at fostering young musical talent. In this connection I was delighted to see eleven young sopranos from their Academy of Vocal Music Transition Group taking part in the Duruflé Requiem and in the Poulenc Litanies à La Vierge Noire.

Three things distinguished this concert: the quality of the music; the excellence of the execution; and the care and thought that had gone into the planning of the programme and its presentation. One of the movements of the Duruflé, the ‘Pie Jesu’, includes anad lib part for solo cello. So Jeffrey Skidmore chose to open the proceedings with a short piece, Prière, for cello and organ by Saint-Saëns, played by Andrew Skidmore and Alexander Mason. And also in the first half he gave us another highly relevant short work, Pie Jesu by Massenet. This is for mezzo-soprano, cello and organ, exactly the same forces as deployed by Duruflé in the same movement of his Requiem. Both these pieces were completely new to me and I was very glad to make their acquaintance. In a further imaginative touch Skidmore placed the Poulenc Litanies between the Saint-Saëns and the Massenet and ran all three works as a continuous sequence, thus ensuring that applause would not disturb the cumulative ambience. He had one more excellent idea up his sleeve, which I’ll mention in due course.

Saint-Saëns wrote Prière in 1919, right at the end of his life. It’s only a short piece and it’s quite modest in scope and scale but it exudes an air of serenity and gentle prayerfulness. It was beautifully played, with a lovely singing tone, by Andrew Skidmore. My only slight reservation was that Alexander Mason’s organ accompaniment was just a little too discreet. From my seat, halfway down the nave, I found it rather difficult to hear the organ at times. The Massenet setting ofPie Jesu was published in 1893 and it is little known these days, though in his programme note, Jeffrey Skidmore speculated that it might have been an inspiration to Duruflé. Like the Saint-Saëns it’s a modest piece but it’s also deeply felt and rather touching. I thought Frances Bourne sang it beautifully.

In between these two offerings we heard Poulenc’sLitanies à La Vierge Noire sung by the altos (male and female) and sopranos. This powerful work dates from 1936. Poulenc had all but lost his religious faith in his late teens but the shock of the death of his friend and fellow composer, Pierre-Octave Ferroud led him to visit the Marian shrine in Rocamadour, where a statue of the so-called Black Virgin is venerated by pilgrims. This provided the inspiration for him to compose theLitanies at high speed, beginning work on the very evening of his visit to the shrine, I believe. This performance by Ex Cathedra caught the contrasting moods of the piece very well. There was some beautiful, delicate singing but there was also the requisite punch when called for. The choir’s tone was well supported throughout and the short passages of solos or small ensembles were well taken. The quiet, somewhat elusive end was particularly well managed.

The first half closed with the work that Poulenc himself reckoned to be his masterpiece, the cantata for two mixed a capella choirs, Figure Humaine. This was composed in secrecy in wartime France in 1943 but, given that the chosen texts, especially that of the last poem, had so many connotations with the Resistance, Poulenc knew that performance would be impossible until France had been liberated.

In this astonishing choral tour de force Poulenc set eight poems by his friend, the surrealist poet, Paul Éluard (1895-1952). The poems, written in the 1940s during the Nazi occupation of France, are often difficult to grasp in their imagery and in this connection Jeffrey Skidmore introduced an idea which was new in my experience. Before each of the eight movements the relevant poem was read, in the original French. This was done by Mme. Jacqueline Twinberrow, a French lady, who has lived in the UK since 1956. She resides in the Worcester area and is married to an Englishman. She explained to me afterwards that she was a child in wartime Paris, though she was evacuated to Eastern France just before the liberation of the city. This association must have made it a particularly poignant assignment for her to read these poems. I love the sound of the French language and Mme. Twinberrow, who was placed in the pulpit, read the poems most evocatively.  I thought that Jeffrey Skidmore pulled off something of a coup with this idea although purists might contend that the music should be heard without interruption. However, by presenting the work in this way I found that Skidmore had actually increased the focus on each separate movement. Furthermore, since the texts are so complex and elusive, it was extremely helpful to be able to concentrate quietly on the words – and the excellent English translation – before hearing the music. Nowhere was this approach more successful than in the case of the final poem, the climax of the work, Éluard’s Liberté. The poem was read in a straightforward, unsensational way until Mme. Twinberrow very rightly declaimed the final word, which gives the poem its title. In this way she underlined very forcefully Éluard’s key image of inscribing – and investing – the precious concept of liberty in all the everyday things around him.

Skidmore and his singers were right inside the music and gave a highly convincing performance of it.  It bristles with technical difficulties but, so far as I could tell without a score to follow, all of these were surmounted. It seemed to me that all the myriad moods of the piece were conveyed, including the darkness of the opening lines of the first poem, the pell-mell urgency that characterises much of the second movement, through to the seventh poem, in the second half of which the wonderful homophonic chords were built with a marvellous cumulative power. In two poems, the fourth and sixth, only one of the twin choirs is used. In the first of these the airy textures, which invest the music with great gentleness, were managed very successfully. The setting of the sixth poem has a gentle pathos, so typical of Poulenc, and this was quite beautifully realised. Liberté was, as it should be, the culmination of this great work. The force of the music is cumulative and I admired the way in which Jeffrey Skidmore inspired his choir to singing of increasing urgency and passion. All the emotion and intensity that had been evident earlier in the work came to full fruition in this final movement and the effect was most exciting. As the tessitura climbed ever higher, the sopranos in particular, coped heroically with Poulenc’s demands. When the final chord of E major was attained on the word ‘Liberté’ there was a palpable sense of arrival and release.

After the interval we heard just one work, Maurice Duruflé’s serene Requiem (1947). This is a work I’ve loved ever since I sang it while still at school and I’ve had the pleasure of singing it several times in recent years, including two performances in France under a French conductor. For me, it’s fully the equal of Fauré’s wonderful setting, to which it bears a number of resemblances, not least in terms of layout and structure. Where it differs from the Fauré setting is in the influence of plainsong. I say “influence” but  in fact almost every bar of Duruflé’s masterpiece either bears the imprint of, is suffused by, plainsong. This has a major implication for the rhythms since the time signatures change frequently, often from one bar to another. One typical example of this is the fifth movement, the ‘Pie Jesu’. This is a mere sixty bars long but during the course of the movement the time signature changes no less than thirty-seven times between 2/4, 3 /4 and 4/4. Every movement has this same characteristic; effectively Duruflé is putting in bars for convenience but, in reality, is dispensing with the bar line. In a successful performance the conductor needs above all to convey this.

I thought Jeffrey Skidmore was completely successful in this respect. This was quite a fleet account of the work and there were a few occasions when I suspected his tempi were a touch faster than the metronome marking but even if that was the case, I don’t think it mattered. Far better that the work should have the sense of flow that he achieved than to be at all sluggish. From start to finish the music had the suppleness and flexibility that Duruflé surely intended.

In this Skidmore was aided tremendously by the contribution of Alexander Mason, whose work as an improviser I’ve admired previously (review).The work exists in three versions, all made by the composer. There’s a version for full orchestra, one for reduced orchestra with organ and one for organ alone, which was the version performed on this occasion. The organ part is very demanding at times, a prime example being the animato section of the third movement, ‘Domine Jesu Christe’. Here, as elsewhere, Mason was completely accurate in his rhythms at all times and he contributed tremendously to the consistent sense of forward momentum in the whole performance. I’m not an organist but I suspect that the Worcester Cathedral instrument may not have the range of stops and mixtures that’s really suited to French music. This may be why, for example, prior to the first baritone solo, which occurs at ‘Hostias et preces’ in that same third movement, I missed the reedy sound in the organ passage – in the full orchestral version the melody at this point is given to the cor anglais. However, overall Mason’s playing was quite superb and a major feature of the performance.

The aforementioned baritone solo was taken by Eamonn Dougan, a member of the choir. The solo baritone role is quite small, being restricted to two fairly short passages: Dougan sang well but his seems to be a rather light, English voice and once or twice I did wonder if he was pushing a bit too much in order to project down the cathedral nave. It does surprise me that almost every conductor ignores the composer’s note at the front of the score that it is “preferable” (my italics) for the baritone solos to be sung “by all the baritones and second tenors”. In fact I can only ever recall hearing it done this way once (review) but it’s really quite effective. I can understand that in orchestral performances, which may imply a large choir, one wouldn’t want a substantial body of male voices singing these phrases but in a performance on the more intimate scale of this present occasion I would have thought it would have worked rather well.

Frances Bourne reappeared to sing the ‘Pie Jesu’ movement and once again she was partnered to excellent effect by Andrew Skidmore. Miss Bourne has a lovely rich tone and sang with warmth and feeling. She gets high marks from me. But the person who damaged the atmosphere of the final bars of this movement by rattling the cathedral door latch gets high marks only for insensitivity!

The choir sang splendidly. They were fully responsive to their conductor’s intentions with regard to forgetting about the bar lines. Dynamic control and contrast was, for the most part, extremely impressive. There were just a couple of occasions when I wondered if they could have sung more softly: one was at the very beginning when I don’t think the tenors and basses quite achieved pianissimo in their opening phrase. The other, more surprisingly, was at the very end of the work, in the ‘In Paradisum’. The sopranos sang the first few phrases with ethereal beauty but when the full choir entered I was disappointed that they weren’t as hushed as I’d have liked.

However, these were minor blemishes, which were more than outweighed by much felicitous singing. One thing that I thought worked very much to the benefit of the performance was the gender mix in the alto section. There were six male altos listed and an equal number of ladies. This gave a wonderful blend on the alto line of the richness of female voices and the greater cutting edge of male altos. The beneficial effect of this was evident at several points, such as the alto phrases at the start of the ‘Domine Jesu Christe’ and again in the ‘Sanctus’ where the upper voices sing together in three parts. Later on in the ‘Sanctus’, as Duruflé builds a climax for full choir on the words ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ every choral line was clear; indeed, clarity of texture was a feature throughout the evening.

At the end of the work there was a distinct silence before the audience began to applaud. That reluctance to break the spell was, I think, the greatest compliment we, the audience, could have paid the performers.

So, a marvellous and interesting programme, superbly executed and, I’m sure, thoroughly enjoyed by a substantial audience. The programme is being repeated on 3 February at St. John’s, Smith Square, London, at 19.30. If you can get a ticket it should be another rewarding evening.

John Quinn