Last night’s Birmingham concert in our CBSO100 series:
Beethoven Missa Solemnis Ex Cathedra / CBSO at Symphony Hall ★★★
Performing this work work just a week after the CBSO’s stupendous Mahler’s eighth symphony was a gamble. With those massive hall-filling forces still in the mind’s eye the sight of a slimmed-down orchestra (just two double basses) and single choir on the platform was a shock. Such comparisons are invidious, after all Beethoven didn’t compose a Mass of a Thousand, but surely it would have suited the scale, and style of this performance to have used the Town Hall instead.
Ex Cathedra is celebrating its 50th anniversary and there was, as always, much to admire here under founder and conductor Jeffrey Skidmore. In his programme notes he wrote: “the music is awe-inspiring but we shouldn’t be overawed.” It’s a compliment, albeit a back-handed one, to say that we weren’t. The triple forte and the trombone entry at “omnipotens” sounded muted and the martial music – which startled and bemused early listeners – merely quaint. What succeeded were the work’s many quiet and reflective passages: the wonder and mystery of the Incarnation; the quiet tread of the organ in the Praeludium; the lovely violin solo, truly dolce cantabile. The choir were first rate as were the soloists, while tucked away obscurely in the choir: the radiant Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Sophie Rennert (mezzo), Andrew Tortise (tenor) and Roderick Williams, although he lacked the ideally resonant bass notes for the Agnus Dei. The interval was a dim idea: people munching ice-cream between the Credo and Sanctus hardly fitted Beethoven’s performance directive – “Mit Andacht” (With Devotion).