Ex Cathedra, St Mary’s, Warwick
Perhaps it’s a stretch to find a man who lived into the second world war and knew much of the modern Russia, in a concert of ‘early music’ but Rachmaninoff’s achingly beautiful settings of orthodox liturgy are about as timeless as that word allows and speak of a Russia far distant from that which he knew and, crucially, the one we’re confronted with today.
Ex Cathedra, under the ever-attentive direction of Jeffrey Skidmore, found a sound and expression in this performance which serves not only that double past, but which will carry us into the future for some time.
For all the fabulous artistry the composer has at his disposal – and remember this is Rachmaninoff whose sweeping melodies in other genres perennially top the favourites charts to this day – this is liturgical work and must remain within limits of decorum.
Presented in a format including the chants on which the settings are based, this programme was superbly sung throughout. The basses in particular were as impressive as anything this church can have heard, reaching depths the packed audience could probably feel as much as hear. Credit too to the two soloists, Martha McLorinan and, standing in at short notice, Daniel Marles.
Live music is always a balance weighing imperfect listening conditions and minor annoyances against the possibility of being present at something quite brilliant. A large audience at a quiet piece will always produce the coughs and chair-scraping that digital recordings banish, but there is still a vast amount in the credit column.
Only in the flesh can the full power and subtlety of this music be appreciated and actually seen on the faces of those producing it. Unless you happen to live in a sizeable cave and have wonderfully understanding neighbours, you won’t match the sound of a quality choral ensemble in the acoustic of this splendid church.
Opting to present the work with an interval works both ways. The heart and soul may yearn to experience the flow of Rachmaninoff’s settings in one uninterrupted performance but the more fundamental parts welcome the chance to get up and move around. Perhaps a more ‘all-night-vigil’ inspired lighting state could have been attempted but it has to be borne in mind that the focus of this concert is on superb music and unnecessary trimmings may be just that.