Spitalfields Music: Christmas Oratorio
St Leonard’s, Shoreditch. 15 December 2015
In what they described as a “subtle dramatisation”, the Solomon’s Knot Baroque Collective performed four of the six cantatas that make up Bach’s so-called ‘Christmas Oratorio’ as the closing concert of this years Spitalfields Music Winter Festival. And they did it with the eight singers all singing from memory. What could so easily have been a bit of a gimmick turned out to be a thought-provoking experience, at least from the audience’s perspective. One of the aims of Solomon’s Knot is to ‘remove the barriers (visible and invisible) between performers and spectators’. This performance certainly did that. Initially having eight singers gazing directly at us seemed like opening your front door to a massed gathering of Mormons, all earnest looking in matching dark suits and (in this case, red) ties. Or perhaps we had stumbled into some sort of revivalist meeting – or an Alcoholics Anonymous gathering.
The ‘dramatisation’ was certainly subtle. There was no obvious acting, merely glances between the performers, a slight re-positioning on stage, a couple moving together and, later, a sedate confrontation with a rather buttoned-up Herod. But what was immediately apparent was that they were singing directly to us, making direct eye contact with the audience. The group went out of their way to stress their individuality – they arrived on stage in small groups, and never stood or sat together, each taking their own time to stand, for example, at the start of a chorus. Often the instrumental introduction to an aria would be well under way before any one singer offered to hesitatingly stand up and sing – hence the Alcoholics Anonymous suggestion of nervousness at addressing the rest of the group, and the packed audience watching on. At the end of an aria, the singers often quietly turned to look at the instrumentalists behind them, reinforcing the collective nature of the group, and the performance.
Each singer portrayed a different persona, although it was not clear if this was rehearsed or just them being themselves. Alex Ashworth, who sang Herod and one of the earlier bass arias, was quite literally buttoned-up, standing rather awkwardly and quite mechanically switching from audience left to audience right focus. Soprano Zoë Brookshaw initially seemed very diffident, reluctant to look at the audience, and only just managing to look across at the other singers. But her singing was exquisite. One of the emotional highlights came in the final cantatas when she stood rather meekly as if to present her personal testimony to a prayer meeting or a group therapy session, but then went on to directly challenge Herod in her recitative Du Falscher, suche nur den Harrn zu fallen (‘Deceiver, though you try to destroy the Lord’), singing straight to him as he subsided back into his chair. The meek really can inherit the earth. Having just ‘shattered her enemy’s pride’, her following aria Nu rein Wink von seinen Händen was pure magic.
In a rather different guise, Zoë Brookshaw (pictured) also looked (and sounded) just the part when she joined bass Jonathan Sells for the lovely duet Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen in Cantata III; a reminder that much of the Christmas Oratorio is Bach’s re-working previously entirely secular cantatas, in this case originally sung to the words “I am yours, you are mine, I kiss you, kiss me” by the characters Sensuality and Mercury. Despite Bach’s revised words, the erotic undertones were still detectible. In contrast, the rather upfront mezzo Kate Symonds-Joy was slightly scary, with a something of an operatic approach to singing and stage presentation. If she has been a Mormon at my front door, I would have been careful as to how strongly I tried to rubbish her arguments. The two tenors, Gwilym Bowen and Peter Davoren took turns with the Evangelist role in the cantatas, both giving very effective, and different, portrayals of their story-telling role. Countertenor Michal Czerniaski was excellent in his arias and consort singing. The other bass was Jonathan Sells, completely disguising the fact that he is also one of the two ‘artistic directors’ of the collective. The other one didn’t seem to play any part in the proceedings.
There was no conductor and no obvious direction, apart from the principal violinist, John Crockatt who, to his immense credit, was promoted at short notice to replace the planned, but indisposed leader. This is far harder than it might sound, for it includes having to play some tricky violin solos, and also giving the lead in keeping the orchestra together behind the singers. Credit is also due to Claudia Norz for replacing him in his original role at equally short notice. John Crockatt was helped in keeping a sense of time by two very bouncy oboe players, their Zebedee-like antics rather distracting to view, but no doubt helping to keep the more remote members of the orchestra in time. The latter included the keyboard continuo player, trumpeters and timpanist, who were all rather hidden at the back. Although they doubled up on the one-to-a-part theory of Bach cantata performance, the orchestra was small by Bach’s assume forces, with just four violins, two violas, cello and bass together with the wind and brass needed in some of the cantatas.
I did wonder if the rather formal dress of the singers hindered the presentation – dark suits and concert frocks. Casual dress might have helped to pull the audience even more into the world of the singers. But aside from the performing from memory and other aspects, this was also a fine performance of the four cantatas, well sung and played, with excellent contributions from all the vocal and instrumental soloists. And in any case, I would have happily forgiven any slight issues that performing without direction might be prone to for the sake of not having to watch one of those flamboyant look-at-me conductors who seem to think that the entire performance is focussed on them. A video of a 2013 Christmas Oratoria performance with Solomon’s Knot can be viewed here.