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Bach: Christmas Oratorio, Dec 2013 - The Daily Telegraph

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Bach’s Christmas Oratorio begins and ends in a great shout of joy, with ringing D major trumpets and a great clatter of kettledrums. In between comes an immense variety of moods, some of which you’d expect, such as the intimate gentleness of the nativity scene, some of which are surprising. Just as in the Passions, Bach suddenly stands back from the familiar story and points out its eternal significance.

This wonderful performance made all the elements come to life in the most vivid way. Packed tight on the stage of St John’s Smith Square were a lavish band of 28 players, a choir of around 40, and the four soloists. This was not going to be one of those small-scale Bach performances we’re told are more “authentic”. It was lavishly festive.

The soloists all brimmed with personality as well as musicality. Bass Neal Davies’s pleasingly grainy voice was always on the sombre side, even during the gentler numbers. He put me in mind of the headmaster who always sounds stern, even when he’s trying to be kind. Tenor James Gilchrist was at the opposite pole, all fire and lightness. His virtuoso runs in his aria about the shepherds exactly caught the shepherds’ excited rushing to see the Christ child. Counter-tenor Iestyn Davies was beautifully persuasive in the difficult role of the commentator, exhorting us to understand the meaning of the miracle.

Leading all this from the podium was Stephen Layton, who moulded the sound as if it were a physical thing, relishing its heaviness, but also urging it into movement. Sometimes he appeared to be kneading dough, or vigorously priming a pump. It may not have looked elegant, but the results were wonderful. One felt the inevitability of Bach’s majestic periods along one’s nerves, as well as his frequent surprises.

Excellent though the soloists and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment were, the real core of the performance was the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge. They had learned the whole thing by heart, and sang as if their lives depended on it. In the Ruler of Heaven chorus that opens Part 3 their soaring melodic lines, like flying buttresses pinioned against one another, were a marvel.

The best moment came later, where on the lines “I will soar there to the life beyond” they sank to a perfectly controlled pianissimo. The sense of a miracle being enacted was palpable.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio performed by Trinity College Choir and the OAE and conducted by Stephen Layton is out now on Hyperion.

Ivan Hewett