Monday 4 December 2023

Bach's Christmas Oratorio from Masaaki Suzuki and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Masaaki Suzuki (Photo: Marco Borggreve)
Masaaki Suzuki (Photo: Marco Borggreve)

Bach: Christmas Oratorio (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Singet dem Herrn; Jessica Cale, Hugh Cutting, Guy Cutting, Florian Störtz, Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Masaaki Suzuki; Queen Elizabeth Hall
Reviewed 2 December 2023

The first of two concerts encompassing the whole of Bach's Christmas Oratorio in music making of the highest order, vividly bringing Bach's colourful music to life but also concentrating on the essential narrative

Written for performance across six occasions from Christmas to Epiphany, Bach's Christmas Oratorio was never designed for concert use and gives performers something of a challenge. Somewhat too long for the average concert, ensembles usually choose to perform a selection of the work's six parts, but for his performances with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conductor Masaaki Suzuki chose a different approach, spreading the entire work across two days and adding extra music by Bach.

On Saturday 2 December 2023, Masaaki Suzuki conducted the Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in Parts One to Three of Bach's Christmas Oratorio along with the motet Singet dem Herrn. Then on the Sunday, he conducted Parts Four to Six along with the Sanctus from the Mass in B Minor. We caught the first of the concerts, with soloists Jessica Cale, Hugh Cutting, Guy Cutting and Florian Störtz.

The soloists sang in the choir, making 16 vocalists in all, stepping out for their solo moments which made sense both of what we know of Bach's own performance practise and of the way the allocation of solos is somewhat uneven. Though it did mean that the performance was counterpointed by rather a lot of walking about from the soloists.

Bach gives each of the cantatas a different timbral register, using quite a luxurious mix of instruments that must have been quite a challenge for his church across Christmas. Suzuki and his performers really brought these contrasts out, each cantata had its own particularly feel. But across all three, there was the sense of Suzuki's serious approach to the music making of Bach. Rhythms were crisply pointed and full of life, the quieter moments were lyrically reflective, yet overall there was a feeling of the seriousness of the message, the importance of the Gospel narrative.

This was spelled out in the glorious chorus that opens the first cantata, with its three trumpets, timpani and Bach's use of timbral contrast with the flutes and oboes. The entire performance, from orchestra and choir, was extremely intent, at times severe and sometimes even fierce. The rhythms and colours were strongly brought out, and the music was at a really high level, what I missed was a sense of joyous fun, of celebration. Bearing in mind that this is music of release, after the penitential season of Advent.

Guy Cutting was a strong toned, vibrant Evangelist who, nevertheless, brought some lovely moments of lyrical beauty to the music to. Hugh Cutting made his accompagnato and aria full of personality, the sense of uplift and joy in Hugh Cutting's performance contrasting with the more severe instrumental contributions. Bass Florian Störtz was quite serious in his approach, but with a vivid sense of rhythm and vibrant tone. And the final chorale brought back the work's use of timbral contrast, with the choir against the trumpets and drums. Throughout, the choir sang with glorious tone and attention to detail, vivid rhythms and great sense of line.

The second cantata, with its quartet of oboes (two 'd'amore' and two 'da caccia') and two flutes, is perhaps my favourite as Bach really leverages the rustic feel of the oboe quartet and contrasts it with the strings in the Sinfonia and the chorus in the Chorale, a stroke of brilliant imagination, and all the time weaving in the lovely pastoral flutes. After a brisk chorale, the recitative included not just Guy Cutting but short moments from the radiant Jessica Cale and the rather fierce Florian Störtz, who returned later in the cantata for a strong and serious accompagnato.

Tenor Guy Cutting got his aria moment, his lovely fluid yet vibrant tone contrasting with the fine flute playing of Lisa Beznosiuk, whilst Hugh Cutting sang his with a lovely sense of intimacy. And the cantata ended with the fine timbral contrasts of choir, oboes and flutes in the Chorale.

After the interval, the choir plus a smaller group of instrumentalists performed Singet dem Herrn. Each of the two choirs was supported by a different contingent of instruments, strings one side, wind the other with organ and double bass continuo. The first part opened with music that was positively effervescent. If the opening of the Christmas Oratorio had been somewhat severe, this was in complete contrast as the singers positively fizzed with lightness and joy. Some sections were quite intent, and there was a lovely interaction between the two choirs, but the overall sense was of uplift. The central section contrasted beautifully shaped interactions of the four soloists with the choir chorale, to lovely intimate effect, whilst the final fugue positively danced. This was music of pure unalloyed joy.

The third cantata of the Christmas Oratorio continues the message of the shepherds as they go to Bethlehem and witness the miracle, though the pastoral sense comes from the use of flutes and just two oboes. The opening chorus was quite brisk, but with a feel of the dance to it, whilst the second chorus where the shepherds hurry to Bethlehem was characterised by vivid scurrying. 

Florian Störtz provided some strong recitative and then joined with Jessica Cale for their engaging duet where the sense of dance was to the fore again, and there was some lovely oboe playing too. Guy Cutting's Evangelist in this cantata was notable for his beautifully shape, mellifluous phrases. Hugh Cutting's aria, with stunning violin playing from Kati Debretzeni, was full of gentle intimacy. The final chorale was taking at quite a pace and then things came to a close with a joyous reprise of the opening material from Cantata one.

This was music making of the highest order, vividly bringing Bach's colourful music to life but also concentrating on the essential narrative of the work and the liturgical implications of the different parts.

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