Ex Cathedra, Oratory, Birmingham

4.00

It would be hard to imagine a more haunting start to a concert than Hanacpachap cussicuinin, the extraordinary street processional in the Incan language, Quechua, with which the choir Ex Cathedra under Jeffrey Skidmore launched its stirring seasonal recital A Latin American Christmas.

Church music flourished in Mexico, Peru and Bolivia in the 17th and 18th centuries, as a welter of musical influences came together. The Latin Mass blossomed, and so did a tradition of songs and carols in the Spanish manner, based on popular verses known as villancicos, yielding a rich repertoire of sacred and secular pieces. Carols emerged in Quechua and the Aztec language, Nahuatl.

The hefty forces at their disposal in cities such as Puebla and La Plata (now Sucre) allowed composers like Juan Padilla to compose double-choir masses such as the Missa Ave Regina.

Taking advantage of the wonderfully rounded acoustic of Birmingham Oratory, Ex Cathedra has the strength to make antiphonal writing sound very exciting. What most impressed was the balances between the voices, the changes of pace, the litheness of the singing, the lively thrown rhythms and the contrast in timbre between the two choirs, all making for endless variety.

The "popular" repertoire, and the extraordinary texts that superimpose local traditions on the Christmas story, most fired the imagination. Salazar's "Salga el torillo" fuses the image of a doomed bull and bullfighter with the impending death of Christ. Araujo's "Los coflades", with its rumba-like rhythms, envisages the ordinary folk running through the streets to see the child in the crib; Fernandes' "Ah! e abajo" and Araujo's "Ay andar" call on the coy listener not to hang back, but to join in: there's no dodging the dancing.

And dance they did. The music has terrific punch; and so had Ex Cathedra's electrifying performance of it. Backed by a flamboyant continuo of harps, theorbo and wildly cheeky percussion, the choir revelled in the music's sheer zest and rhythmic excitement. The sacred need not be solemn, and gloom was banished.

Ex Cathedra's 'Moon, Sun and All Things' is on Hyperion

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