‘Songs of Protest and Hope” was the title Ex Cathedra had given to their Remembrance Sunday programme of choral music, conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore. Two of the works included, by Sally Beamish and Alec Roth, were brand new, the others, by James MacMillan and John Joubert, dated back to the 1980s, and all of them were delivered with impressive assurance by the 30-strong group.
Yet it was the older rather than the newer music that left the stronger impression. More than 30 years on, MacMillan’s Cantos Sagrados remains one of his most powerful pieces, composed at a time when he was interested in the liberation theology of Latin America, an interest that had already resulted in his impressive Busqueda. Cantos Sagrados seems like an impassioned codicil to that music-theatre work – juxtaposing settings of poems by Ariel Dorfman and Ana Maria Mendoza, with passages from the Latin liturgy.
With Joubert’s South of the Line the focus moved back to the beginning of the 20th century. It sets five poems which Thomas Hardy wrote at the outbreak of the Boer war, giving them the rather Bartókian accompaniment of two pianos and percussion. Solo numbers, for soprano and baritone (Imogen Russell and Lawrence White), alternate with the three choral ones, to create a beautifully finished arc in which understatement is everything.
A Knock on the Door, Beamish’s new piece, with a specially written text by Peter Thomson, had been commissioned to raise awareness of the evils of torture. The choir was divided into two, representing the torturer and the tortured, with a sampling keyboard and percussion providing punctuation and sound effects, but though the choral writing was perfectly expert, the exchanges between the groups were never dramatic or moving enough, and it became a rather bland, unmoving treatment of an awful subject.
Roth’s motet The Peace of the Night was an expert piece of choral work too; its interweaving of settings of prayers by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and their English translations with Lutheran chorales was neatly done, and Ex Cathedra’s performance clearly articulated its different strands, but still left a feeling of “So what?” at the end.