On Sunday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under the direction of John Butt, performed Bach's Christmas Oratorio, complete. Butt directed from the harpsichord with a second keyboard player at the organ, though I must confess that at times I found the harpsichord sound a little difficult to hear amidst everything else.
Butt has recently recorded the St. Matthew Passion with his own Dunedin Consort, and on that recording he was firmly 1 voice to a part. But at Sunday's concert we had 4 soloists plus the choir of the Enlightenment. Now, granted, the choir numbered only 13 so the differential was not huge. But, if you read Andrew Parrott's book about performing Bach, he quotes various treatises related to Lutheran performance which suggest that if you use more than 1 voice to a part, you should group the additional voices separately, i.e. you would have 3 group of 4 (SATB). It would have been interesting to try this rather than having the choir in a block at the side of the stage. The whole stage arrangement was odd, because the main body of strings were drawn very far forward, so the soloists sat at the side and walked on for their solos. But, this is not simple in the Christmas Oratorio so we were conscious of a great deal of very careful coming and going.
The other problem with doing soli and choir is that, like in the St. Matthew, is blurs things. If you have the same voices doing the chorals as the solo sections which mix choral and recitative, then you get a better balanced feel. This was the revelation when I first heard the St. Matthew in 1 voice to a part.
Now, having got my gripes out the way, I can safely say that the performance was magical. Nicholas Mulroy was incredible as the Evangelist, sweet voiced, mellifluous but with a fine attention to words. (I need to get Butt's recent St. Matthew recording to hear Mulroy as the Evangelist their. ) Not only that, but he coped brilliantly with Butt's speeds and gave the most amazingly fleet performances of Bach's passage work in his first 2 arias. The other three soloists, Julia Doyle, Meg Bragle and Matthew Brook, were in the same class and produced a wonderfully balance solo line up. The choir was equally good and equally technically adept in the faster passages. (Another gripe, if you are going to put the choir at the side of the stage rather than the back, you should ask the men to shine their shoes as they can be seen!).
As ever the OAE played superbly with some lovely solo playing and of course, the delectable oboe quartet in the 2nd cantata (this must be my favourite moment). Only the solo horns seem a little out of sorts.