Ex Cathedra | Lichfield Cathedral

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

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.