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Bach - Christmas Oratorio - The Arts Desk

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A flurry of timpani and a pair of trilling flutes kick things off nicely. The OAE’s oboes and trumpets are also in fine form, but what really makes this Bach recording a joy is the weight and richness of the choral sound. So many period performances have just one or two voices per part, so hearing close to 40 singers chirping away is an unexpected treat. Choruses and chorales alike proceed with plenty of bounce, and Layton never lets the narrative grind to a halt. On top of which, Stephen Layton’s soloists are superb – particularly bass Matthew Brook. His Grosser Herr includes a splendid natural trumpet solo from David Blackadder, the final high note beautifully sustained. Countertenor Iestyn Davies is equally good, along with soprano Katherine Watson. Flöst, mein Heiland in the fourth part is wondrous, the tiny echoes sweetly sung by Rachel Ambrose Evans. And tenor James Gilchrist’s mellifluous Evangelist is one of the warmest, most direct you’ll find on disc.

Those in search of an authentically Bachian experience will diligently listen to this set in chunks, each section on the appropriate day. But you’ll probably want to consume the whole thing in one sitting, and repeat the experience when you’re in need of a spot of uplift. Sample the tiny solo quartet which appears just before the work’s end, and marvel at the affirmative final chorale, captured in a resonant Trinity College Chapel acoustic. Most importantly, listening to this is a supremely enjoyable experience, a spiritually potent antidote to all that’s schlocky and naff at this time of year.

Graham Rickson

Bach - Christmas Oratorio
Hyperion Records CDA68031/2