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Bach - Christmas Oratorio - Fanfare USA

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Owing to the peculiar nature of print media I’m used to writing about Christmas recordings on some of the hottest days of the year, a helpful reminder that Christmas is a summer holiday on half of the earth’s surface. It’s also a reminder that the first Christmas, whether or not it actually happened in December, took place in a sub-tropical locale and almost certainly wasn’t white. But today I look out on four inches and counting of fresh flakes settling atop another eight inches unmelted from our last wintry blast. It’s February in New Jersey – too late for last year’s shoppers and too early, even accounting for the publishing process to unwind, for this year’s. Which reminds me as well that while Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is topical, it’s also universal. It doesn’t require lights or tinsel or presents under the tree to instruct, inspire and/or entertain, especially if it is presented in as fine a performance as this one fashioned by Stephen Layton and his cohort. Layton is the director of music at Trinity College, Cambridge (having succeeded Richard Marlow), and his choir is top-notch, as is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, mercifully identified as OAE. OAE’s roster is rife with such familiar names from the period instruments movement as Margaret Faultless (who is just that here) and Alison Bury. To mention Anthony Robson, oboe, and David Blackadder, trumpet, is not to slight any of the other players. Layton’s solo quartet is outstanding, too. James Gilchrist is always excellent, but never more so than here, doubling as Evangelist and soloist. Iestyn Davies has risen to the top rank of countertenors. Katherine Watson’s sweet soprano and Matthew Brook’s resonant bass are no less gratifying. Layton’s direction is near perfect, on the mark from start to finish. I’ve long treasured John Eliot Gardiner’s Christmas Oratorio, but Sir John will have to make room [for] Stephen Layton at the top of my list.

George Chien

Bach - Christmas Oratorio
Hyperion Records CDA68031/2