Saturday 23 December 2017

Bach's Christmas Oratorio at St John's Smith Square

Stephen Layton and the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
Stephen Layton and the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (photo Ben Ealovega)
Bach Christmas Oratorio (Cantatas 1,2,3,6); Anna Dennis, Helen Charlston, Gwilym Bowen, Matthew Brook, choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Stephen Layton; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 22 2017 Star rating: 4.0
High quality music making enlivens quite an earnest view of Bach's sequence of Christmas cantatas

There have been quite a few performances of Bach's Christmas Oratorio in London this year, ranging from the small scale, using forces of the size Bach would have recognised, from the Dunedin Consort the Wigmore Hall [see my review] and the Feinstein Ensemble at Kings Place, to Vladimir Jurowsky conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Coming somewhere in the middle, was Stephen Layton, the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at St John's Smith Square on Friday 22 December 2017, with a choir of nearly 40 singers and an orchestra based on 16 strings. They were joined by soloists, Anna Dennis, Helen Charlston, Gwilym Bowen and Matthew Brook.

Layton's selection of cantatas was quite traditional, we had numbers 1,2,3 and 6, which means we got the birth of Christ, the appearance of the Angels to the Shepherds and their subsequent visit to the Christ child and finally the Magi, and of course we got both the celebratory trumpets and the atmospheric scoring of two oboes d'amore and two oboes da caccia for the Shepherds. What this selection misses though, is the more quieter contemplative theme of the missing parts.

Layton's approach to the music was energetic yet earnest, whilst celebratory there was no doubt of the sacred nature of the text. There was little inappropriate levity, so that the opening chorus 'Jauchzet, frohlocket, started with tightly driven excitment and the choir gave us crisp attack and vivid engagement but not really a sense of infectious joy. Though the singers were clearly enjoying themselves as they swayed to the music. This was true of the opening chorus of the third cantata,  but the approach drew great dividends in the chorales, where the seriousness of the text was conveyed in sober intensity and great concentration. And, of course, in moments like the concluding chorale of the whole cycle, there were wonderful instrumental flourishes too.

Using a choir of 38, with an ensemble based on 16 strings, two oboes and chamber organ meant that balance slightly favoured the choir. Of course, in the grand choruses we could clearly hear the trumpets, but in the bigger moments there was a danger of the detail of the string writing getting obscured by the voices. In the chorale with recitative in cantata no. 1, 'Er is auf Eden kommen arm' the use of a choir meant that instead of two comparable voices we had contrast, the experience and lived-in drama of Matthew Brook's solo voice against the purity of sound of the 11 sopranos.

Soprano Anna Dennis was somewhat underused, but Bach gives few solo opportunities perhaps because of the weakness of his crop of boy sopranos. Dennis siezed her opportunities, giving us some striking recitative, and partnering Matthew Brooke in the lovely duet 'Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbamen', two strongly characterful voices joined in a lovely unanimity of style. In her aria in the final cantata, Dennis counterpointed the surprisingly perky music with a seriousness of purpose which suited the gravitas of the text. Throughout she showed a vivid engagement with the words.

Mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston brought a sober gravity to her solos, using her strikingly straight-toned voice to give a beautifully controlled and highly sculptural quality to the music, with 'Schliesse, mein Herze' having a mellow-toned violin obbligato. This is an approach which moves the altos lullaby-style arias from being Mary singing to the infant Jesus to the thoughts of a more general believer.

Tenor Gwilym Bowen delivered the recitatives in quite an intimate way, clearly involved with the drama. He has quite a dark toned voice, with an interesting edge in the more dramatic sections, and he often sang through the recitative rather than giving an edge to the text. His aria 'Frohe Hirten' with its fine flute obbligato was graceful, full of contained excitement and his final aria was full of vivid excement.

Matthew Brooke brought a wonderful swagger to a brisk and brilliant account of 'Grosser Herr'. Here, and in his accompanied recitatives Brooke made sure that the text counted too, he was fully involved in the meaning of the text throughout.

The young members of the choir were fully engaged with the music throughout, delivering not just Bach's tricky vocal lines but doing so with aplomb and real textual engagement, conveying Stephen Layton's particular view of the work.

One of the glories of this work is Bach's enlivening use of different instruments, not just trumpets and drums, but oboes, oboes d'amore and oboes da caccia, requiring a total of four oboe players, plus flutes (and horns in cantata no. four which was omitted). The orchestra gave us some lovely solo moments, as well as glorious passages which combined Bach's love of instrumental colour with lively and engaging counterpoint, it was this which made the evening such a joy.

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