Monday 18 December 2006

Review of Christmas Oratorio

On Friday we went to hear Bach’s Christmas Oratorio performed by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Barbican. Christie worked with an ensemble about 2/3 that used by Colin Davis for his Messiah with the LSO; which was still quite large for a Bach oratorio. Given what we know about Bach’s performance practices, using a choir of 24 was probably on the large size for a period performance. Of course, Christie makes no particular claims about his performance, you simply go along for the Arts Florissants experience.

Christie’s Bach, like his Handel, is very French influenced. Throughout the whole piece, all the movements with dance based rhythmical formats had an underlying bounce and lilt, this was a very dancing sort of performance. Speeds were generally geared to the dance-like file, so that the opening chorus was rather too fast for my liking. Though Christie obviously relished the array of instrumental colour that Bach uses in the work, Christie never quite solved the problem of the flutes in this movement. I have always found that on period instruments the flute interjections sound far too underpowered compared to the oboes and brass, as if something was missing.

Still, the performance got off to a lively and attractive start, with fine contributions from chorus and orchestra. The chorus provided a well modulated, rather blended sound; they seemed to go for blend and overall timbre rather than line. This in contrast to Tenebrae who sang Messiah for Colin Davis with a great attention to the line of the music.

As Christie’s speeds were on the fast side, this meant that he was able to bring the first 3 cantatas in at 1 hour 20 minutes. Despite music making of a high order, I rather felt that things had skipped past at a little too fast a rate. Christie’s light, dancing touch could have done with a bit of the German angst that a previous generation brought to these works. That said, Christie’s soloists responded magnificently.

Top of the list must be counter-tenor Tim Mead, displaying a lovely, smooth tone and wonderful breath control he impressed in all his numbers. Perhaps his stage demeanour needs a little work, he came over as a trifle smug, but such was his musicality that you forgave him. Similarly impressive, albeit in a more dramatic way, was bass Markus Werba. It helped, of course, that Werba was singing in his native German. He seems to be a naturally dramatic performer and brought a welcome whiff of the opera house to the performance.

Nicholas Watts sang the Evangelist; always an expressive performer, Watts made you wish that the part was meatier. The tenor arias were allocated to Marcel Beekman who threw off the tricky passage-work with ease; passage work made trickier by Christie’s lively speeds. In the first half, soprano Marie Arnet was under used but she came into her expressive own in the final 3 cantatas.

As I have said, orchestra and choir performed brilliantly but there were moments, particularly in the final movement when I felt sorry for the trumpet players and wished that Christie had eased up on the speeds to make their lives a little easier.

Whilst this performance dazzled with its musicality I did not feel that it plumbed the emotional heart of the piece. Christie’s approach seemed to present us with a series of attractive moments rather than an emotional narrative of the nativity.

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