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Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at St John’s Smith Square’s Christmas Festival: a strongly engaged performance, full of vivid detail
A regular part of St John’s Smith Square’s Christmas Festival, Stephen Layton, the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment returned on 22 December 2018 with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, with soloists Katherine Watson, Helen Charlston, Gwilym Bowen and Matthew Brook. With substantially the same line as soloists as their performance of the oratorio last year [only Katherine Watson was new, see my review of the 2017 performance], it seemed a shame that Stephen Layton and his forces gave us the same selection of Parts as last year, I, II, III & VI.
Yes, it is terrific to have these movements with the festive trumpets and the quartet of oboes (including oboes d’amore and oboes da caccia). but there is lots too in the quieter Parts IV and V. Though Bach performed the work in pieces across six major feasts during the period from Christmas to Epiphany, the libretto was published as a whole and he clearly thought of the piece as a single entity.
Stephen Layton took quite a serious view of the work (as undoubtedly did Bach himself), a thoughtful narration of the Christmas gospel with all its foreshadowings of Christ’s passion, and less a festive romp (despite the trumpets).
But there was much joyful detail in the performance, rhythms were full of crisp bounce and were very infectious, not to say positively toe-tapping. The performers, though disciplined, were clearly enjoying themselves with the back rows of the choir positively swaying to the music.
Bach probably did not think of it as a choral work per se; he probably only had a handful of choral singers (the luxurious orchestration may well have entailed some doubling on voice and an occasional instrument). But the work has very much become a choral showpiece, though smaller scale performances do shed a different light on the score [performances such as that of the Dunedin Consort in 2017, or that of Solomon’s Knot in 2015].
Here we had the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, some 40 young women and men singing from memory with a combination of discipline and engagement. It wasn’t just the vivacity of the choruses, but the singers’ engagement with the words of the chorales which made it seem as if they meant it.
Speaking of words, with largely (I presume) English speaking choir, soloists and audience, why couldn’t we have the work sung in English? It was not just the chorales, Gwilym Bowen’s wonderfully engaged account of the recitatives made me wish that his vivid storytelling was in my own language. Bowen displayed the admirable ability to change vocal character so that his final aria had a darkly thrilling dramatic quality to it, very different from his recitative narrations.
Matthew Brook brought a similar feeling of narrative engagement to his performance, so his recitatives really meant something as part of the story being told, and his arias fitted into the drama. So ‘Grosser Herr’ had not so much a swagger to it as a catchy joy. And I enjoyed the way Brook and Katherine Watson matched their voices in ‘Herr, dein Mitleid’ making the duet one of the highlights of the evening.
Mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston delivered her arias in a dignified and serious manner, making them profoundly considered, very moving and highly musical, on a par with the theological message, but part of me would have liked a little of the sense of joy that the Virgin Mary must have felt.
Bach’s scoring in the oratorio is rather lavish, three trumpets, two oboes (doubling oboes d’amore), two oboes da caccia, two flutes and two horns (not needed in the Parts performed on Saturday). And he puts his instrumentalists to good use, not just violin and flute obbligatos, but the quartet of oboes representing the shepherds, and Bach’s use of the solo trumpet in Part VI. So there was plenty for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to get their teeth into, and the orchestral playing fully complemented the level of engagement of the singers’ performance.
This was a very particular view of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, how could it not be, and perhaps not my ideal performance. But if you went along with it there were riches indeed, and it sent the near-capacity audience away uplifted.