Monday, 13 November 2017

Bach's Christmas Oratorio concludes BREMF 2017

Bach Christmas Oratorio; Hannah Ely, Rebecca Leggett, Hugo Hymas, Simon Wallfisch, BREMF Singers & Players, John Hancorn; Brighton Early Music Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 12 2017 Star rating: 3.5
An excellent team of young soloists illuminates an otherwise somewhat fuzzy performance

The 2017 Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) finished with a performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio on Sunday 12 November 2017 in St Martin's Church, Lewes Road, Brighton. John Hancorn conducted the BREMF Singers and the BREMF Players (leader Alison Bury) with an excellent team of young soloists Hannah Ely, Rebecca Leggett, Hugo Hymas and Simon Wallfisch. The audience was provided with the music for five of the chorales and invited to join in the singing of them.

The performers gave us a generous five of the six parts of the oratorio, missing out Part 4. Unfortunately, the exigencies of travelling home to London afterwards meant that we had to miss the second half, and heard only the first three parts.

St Martin's Church is a large, elaborately decorated building with plenty of space for the performers (32 in the choir, 16 in the orchestra) and a generous acoustic to match. The opening chorus, 'Jauchzet, frohlocket' gave a good indication of the strengths and weaknesses of the performance. There was good crisp orchestral playing, but a little dominated by the (excellent) trumpets, a gentle chorus sound with a nice bounce, but ensemble took a little time to settle and throughout the performance, the larger scale numbers seemed to have uneven moments of ensemble, perhaps because of the unfamiliar acoustic. The result was a performance that had its share of fuzzy moments. Balance rather favoured the choir in the bigger numbers, and we could have done with a larger body of strings to support them and a bigger organ. The smaller, more intimate moments worked best, notably the more gentle chorales and the arias, as it the young soloists who really drew the attention.

Hugo Hymas displayed a nice combination of vibrant tone and ease at the top of his voice, making the Evangelist's recitatives a great pleasure.  His aria 'Frohe Hirten' was fluidly flowing with a graceful flute solo from Rachel Beckett.

The soprano soloist is relatively underused in the oratorio (perhaps Bach had a poor quality batch of trebles at the time), but soprano Hannah Ely displayed a lovely clear focused soprano voice, joining with Simon Wallfisch in an engaging account of the duet 'Herr, dein Mitleid'.

Alto Rebecca Leggatt showed a beautifully modulated, warm alto voice, singing with a nice evenness of tone and a lovely calmness in the lullaby, 'Schlafe, mein Liebster', with a lovely violin solo from Alison Bury.

Baritone Simon Wallfisch gave us plenty of firm, up-front singing, and a lovely swagger in 'Grosser Herr'. Always committed to the words he made the accompanied recitative 'So geht denn hin, ihr Hirten' very expressive.

This oratorio has some of my favourite of Bach's music, particularly the passages in Part 2 which use oboes, and oboes da caccia in a four-part texture. The four players from really gave us some richly sonorous sounds, notably in the lovely chorale 'Wire singern dir in deinem Heer' where flutes, oboes and oboes da caccia alternate with the choir

This year's BREMF was the final one where Clare Norburn (who co-founded the festival) was co-artistic director and she stepped down at the end of the festival. The 2018 festival, under Deborah Roberts' artistic directorship, takes as its theme Europe: connection, division, collaboration and chaos, and runs from 26 October to 11 November 2018

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