Ex Cathedra | Lichfield Cathedral

A century ago, in Bantock and Elgar's day, Birmingham was one of the great choral centres of England. Mendelssohn and Dvorak conducted and composed for its great festivals. Gerontius had its rocky first outing.

Amazingly, that tradition continues. Such is the CBSO's fame that the second city's choral strength tends not to get noticed .Only last week Birmingham Festival Choral Society gave the premiÿre of Antonin Tucapsky's Millennium Te Deum. Christopher Robinson's City of Birmingham Choir braved the English premiÿre of Maxwell Davies's The Jacobite Rising last year. The Birmingham Choral Union pipped the Finzi centenary with a lucid Intimations of Immortality. The CBSO Chorus's offerings under Simon Halsey have the same razor-sharpness as the precision milling that was once the city's hallmark. Birmingham Bach Choir's Bach, and his predecessors programme under Paul Spicer, would make the Germans envious.

But Birmingham's jewel in the crown - as their acclaimed Proms appearance demonstrated - is Jeffrey Skidmore's Ex Cathedra, fresh from its premiÿre with the BCMG of John Joubert's Wings of Faith. While Spicer delves into Schutz and Buxtehude, Ex Cathedra has excavated the Dresden-trained Carl Heinrich Graun (c1703/4-1759), who served the flute-playing Frederick the Great as Prussian Crown Prince and Elector for more than 20 years, latterly at Frederick's Potsdam palace of Sans-Souci, and in Berlin, helping to set up the Berlin opera. Works flowed from his pen: Artaxerxes, Scipio Africanus, Polidorus, Cleopatra and Caesar, Montezuma (the last two recorded). Like Handel and Mozart, he immortalised the Roman Pinochet, Lucius Sulla, (and wrote a Rodelinda): he even pipped Gluck to Iphigeneia.

Yet it was Graun's choral music which most stood the test of time: above all, his remarkable Easter oratorio Der Tod Jesu - The Death of Jesus. Composed a quarter of a century after Bach's St John and St Matthew Passions, it bizarrely eclipsed them and was still riding high when Bismarck crowned the Kaiser.

Why? Bach's are more direct, more dramatic, more instrumentally ingenious, and far more devastating. Partly, perhaps, because of its north German provenance: for all Frederick's conservatism, the music at Berlin, as at Mannheim, was edging forward from the Baroque to the Classical eras. Graun's counterpoint is more poised, the line more vertical. And the chorales are a sort of 17th-century Top of the Pops. Bach's Lutheran texts are stark and Gospel-based, with all the inherent drama; Graun's text by C W Ranler, the "German Horace", integrates story with reflection. It ponders and self-castigates as it goes along; and draws conclusions before it delineates. Bach's "Es is vollbracht" grievingly descends; Graun's trumpets upwards. To the taste, no doubt, of an optimistic Enlightenment, hankering for its Goethe.

The best of it, however - there are tantalising glimpses of Mozart and Sturm und Drang Haydn over the horizon - is very good indeed. One large chorus feels like a sketchbook for La Clemenza did Tito. It was Ex Cathedra's not always secure bass soloist, Robert Rice, and at times the orchestral playing, notably bassoons and basset horn near the close, that caught the drama best. Skidmore's briskish pacings was to advantage. The appealing soprano soloist, Fusako Yanauchi, never quite managed the drama - she needed to let rip - but her soprano-alto duet (with the splendid Margaret Cameron) was riveting. Most impressive of all was the better-than-professional internal balance achieved by Skidmore's choir. The result was a team effort of top-notch quality.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor