Going out in the grand style

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The Independent Culture
Music Ex Cathedra Birmingham Oratory By any criteria there can be no doubt about Purcell's greatness and versatility, but he always looks best in the company of fellow Brits. Expanding the context to include some of his French contemporaries, notably Lalande and Charpentier, can alter the perspective markedly - here are two composers whose expressive range and harmonic inventiveness are often on a par with England's Orpheus. Last Saturday in Birmingham Oratory, the Ex Cathedra Choir and Baroque Orchestra gave us a chance for direct comparison by placing Purcell's St Cecilia's Day Te Deum beside settings of the same text by Lalande and Caldara.

Caldara's version was superficially brilliant, but for all its burnished enthusiasm, ultimately unmemorable. Lalande's (of 1684) was quite a different matter: both bracing and moving, it is a remarkable glimpse of the most magnificent court of late 17th-century Europe at prayer. Winning, almost torrential invention held in check by a consummate sense of proportion makes this a landmark of the French Baroque.

The flexibility and exuberance of the Lalande were matched superbly by Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra - at the composer's own recommended speeds. It would be hard to find a native choir more at ease with the style of this music: their inegale - that most elusive aspect of French style - was both consistent and natural, the tone clear without a hint of acidity in attack. A fine collection of soloists from the choir trilled their way through a thicket of ornamental lines as if born to it - not just a memorable performance, but the context Purcell deserves.

After a slightly sticky start, Radio 3's "Music for a While" series was rounded off nicely on Monday with a rich mix of repertoire from the Purcell and Lindsay Quartets, and some distinguished singers. Given the poor diction in some of the earlier concerts, it was a delight to hear words delivered with both clarity and feeling: every syllable of three unrepentantly un-PC Purcell catches was here mercilessly clear. In the more serious numbers, Michael George, Ian Bostridge and Paul Agnew projected with areal dramatic feel and Emma Kirkby's performance of "Let the night perish" will live long in the memory.

The Tippett end of the series was upheld by the Lindsays in stunning performances of the second and fourth quartets. For all the works' astonishing contrasts, these players constantly illuminated the common thread, whether in the poetic intensity of No2 or the almost destructive polarities of No4. In between came Vic Hoyland's Bagatelles, a birthday tribute to Tippett that was also something of a hitch-hiker's guide to world musics, from ancient Buddhist chant to Bulgarian folksong. Held in check by a theme built on the letters of Tippett's name, the result was joky, ear-catching and, for a self-proclaimed "arch modernist", disarmingly lyrical.

Ex Cathedra are at St John's Smith Sq, London SW1 (071-222 1061) 7.30pm tonight

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