Tuesday 24 December 2013

Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
As part of the Christmas Festival at St John's Smith Square, the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conductor Stephen Layton, performed parts one, two, three and six of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, with soloists Katherine Watson, Iestyn Davies, James Gilchrist and Neal Davies. St John's was filled with a capacity audience.

Bach wrote the work as a coherent entity, even though it was performed spread over six days during the Octave of the Nativity. Rather too long for a performance on a single evening, the solution of performing the first three and final parts worked well, giving us the bulk of the story and some of the finest music.

The choir has recently recorded the work with Stephen Layton, the OAE and a similar line up of soloists. At St John's the choir rather admirably performed from memory. There were some 40 singers and 28 instrumentalists, there were probably rather more performers than Bach would have anticipated. In the lively opening chorus, Jauchzet, frohlocket! there was a nice balance between chorus and orchestra. Though I have to admit that I have always found Bach's orchestration here, with its combination of flutes and trumpets, rather a triumph of expectation over experience.

James Gilchrist made a very involving Evangelist, projecting the text vividly and bringing the narrative home. His upper register had the easy fluency needed in this role. His aria in part two, Frohe Hirten was quietly vivid, with some impressive passagework complemented by a fine flute solo. His aria in part six, Nun mögt ihr stolzen aptly summarised his whole performance. Here as elsewhere he really made the words mean something, conveying the text's deeper meaning and combining this with lovely tone and beautifully floated high notes.

The oratorio has no named roles and though the gospel text is mainly sung by the tenor, there are further recitatives setting Picander's text, which are distributed across the soloists. The arias are similarly distributed.

My first acquaintance with the work was on disc, a recording which included Paul Esswoood singing the alto solos. Iestyn Davies' performances rather recalled this memory. Iestyn Davies brought great beauty of tone and a superb sense of line to his solos. Bereite sich Sion was sung with a nice one-in-a-bar feel and fine shape to the phrases. Schlafe mein Liebster in part two, one of my favourite arias in the work, was gently lovely with its combination of beauty of tone, sense of line and the feel of an intimate lullaby. Iestyn Davies' final arias, Schliesse, mein Herz was equally fine, a very affecting performance complemented with a find solo violin.

Bass Neal Davies was superbly vivid in his recitatives. His aria Grosser Herr in part one had a nicely bravura feel with some wonderfully confident fioriture and some thrilling trumpet playing. Neal Davies' duet with soprano Katherine Watson in part three, Herr, dein Mitleid was a great delight. Their poised and appealing performance was complemented by some fine oboe playing.

Soprano Katherine Watson rather got the short straw with little recitative assigned to her. But when she finally came to her aria in part six she impressed with a characterful lyric soprano and an easy fluidity, making the aria nicely appealing whilst bringing a sense of drama t the preceding recitative.

The chorus has a big role in this work, there are some chunky choruses. Besides the opening one, part three opens with another superb example, Herscher des Himmels to which the young singers gave a lovely bounce and swing. They sang with bright young tone, nicely flexible and focussed and were clearly responsive to Stephen Layton's detailed conducting, so that texts were all finely pointed. Part six opens with another fine chorus, Herr, Wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben. Here given a fluid and characterful performance. Almost as important are the chorales, where the choir combined beauty of tone with a great sense of the words.

This was the sort of performance which used forces rather different to Bach's own, in terms of size of the choir, probably string complement, and use of adults rather than boy sopranos and altos. But care and attention had gone into issues of balance and all concerned projected the text. More than this, you sense it meant something. Stephen Layton is clearly an inspiring conductor and here made us believe the spiritual nature of the telling of the Christmas story.

Bach gives numerous solo moments to his instrumentalists. My favourite has to be his use of oboe quartet (two oboes and two oboes da caccia) in part two, particularly the chorale at the end Wir singen dir in deinem Heer. A particular mention must go to the three trumpet players, giving us some fine grained accounts of Bach's high trumpet parts.

This was a fine and inspiring account of one of Bach's most appealing scores.

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