Bach - Christmas Oratorio - The Sunday Times



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Although Bach called these six yuletide cantatas, composed in 1734, an oratorio, he intended them to be performed separately: on the first, second and third days of Christmas, the Feast of the Circumcision, the first Sunday after New Year and the Feast of Epiphany (the visit of the Magi). Yet the composer clearly regarded them as a set, using the same theme for the first chorale in the Christmas Eve and Epiphany cantatas.

The opening movement of the first cantata, with magnificent trumpets and drums calling the faithful to rejoice, exults in his most dramatic manner. Layton (pictured) and his orchestral players begin with tremendous verve, but there is infinite variety in this seasoned Bach conductor’s trajectory of the six cantatas with the lively, mixed-voice Trinity choir — singing in excellent German — and elite British soloists. Iestyn Davies’s plush, androgynous alto is perfect for Bereite Dich, Zion, while Matthew Brook’s sturdy and ringing Grosser Herr und starker König is the first of a sequence of great arias for bass. James Gilchrist’s Evangelist here could hardly be bettered among his compatriots, incisively declaimed and subtly nuanced. The quartet is completed by the ethereal-toned Katherine Watson, a new name to me, but clearly one to watch.

Hugh Canning

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