Il Santissimo Natale

Il Santissimo Natale
The English Concert & Choir, Laurence Cummings
St John’s, Smith Square, 12 December 2018

The 33rd St John’s, Smith Square Christmas Festival continued with a very welcome first-half performance (by The English Concert and Choir, directed by Laurence Cummings) of Alessandro Scarlatti’s Missa per il Santíssimo Natale. Scarlatti is usually overlooked in comparison with other composers, both in his many operas and his few compositions for the church. His il Santíssimo Natal Mass was composed in 1707, during Scarlatti’s brief time as maestro di cappella at the Basilica of S Maria Maggiore in Rome. The two jubilant Kyries contrasted with a reflective central Christe. The gentle mood continued into the opening of the Gloria, before the bouncy rhythms returned. As in the later parts of the Mass, frequent changes of mood were a compositional feature, dissolving from one to the other with delightful ease, helped by some well-judged directed from conductor Laurence Cummings. The final Agnus sequence is a gently expansive movement, providing a suitably reflective conclusion to an impressive composition, Scarlatti’s operatic experience never far from the surface, without imposing.

Although there are suggestions (including in the programme notes) that the Mass was intended for just two violins and continuo, this performance was given a more substantial orchestral accompaniment. It would have originally performed from opposite sides of the S Maria Maggiore, with the two organs accompanying the divided choirs. However, for this performance, the Favoriti choir of five soloists (Rebecca Outram, Cecilia Osmond, Helen Charlston, Nick Pritchard and Marcus Farnsworth) stood in front of the four-part ripieno choir, losing the antiphonal effects of the divided choirs. There were some lovely moments from the two sopranos. The Gloria and Credo intonations were sung by Laurence Cummings, swinging round to face the audience in a moment of drama that might perhaps have been omitted for the sake of liturgical appropriateness.

The Mass was interspersed with a nicely segued an a capella hymn and motet, with Jacobus Gallus’s ebullient Omnes Saba, with its little scale motifs, and Giovanni Gabrielli’s well-known O magnum mysterium, composers born around 100 years before Scarlatti.

For the second half, we switched to Bach, with two contrasting Christmas cantatas, Selig ist der Mann (BWV 57) and Ich feue mich in dir (BWV 133). The first was a reminder to any non-Lutherans in the audience that the day after Christmas was treated very differently to our own sleepily hung-over/medicinal activity of Boxing Day. In Leipzig, the emphasis was on St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose day it really is. Hence the rather subdued mood of Selig ist der Mann, composed for 26 December as a rather uneasy dialogue between a slightly forbidding Jesus (Marcus Farnsworth) and an over-anxious Soul (Rebecca Outram). The latter’s heartfelt wish for death if Jesus did not love her is a reflection of her heart ‘suffering pain and anguish’ and ‘writhing like a worm in its own blood’, musically reflected in the wide leaps in the vocal line and the unsettling accompaniment. Jesus responds in the manner of an operatic hero, stridently encouraging The Soul to cease her weeping, despite which, she concludes with another wish to ‘eagerly end this earthly life’, aided on her way with a violin solo from Huw Daniel.

Ich feue mich in dir was written for the third day of Christmas, and is in a far more Christmassy mood, the opening chorale fantasia bubbling over with unalloyed joy. Helen Charlston’s delightful singing of the first aria, with its fanfare-like accompaniment of two oboes d’amore and bassoon, was one of the highlights of the evening. It was closely followed by Cecilia Osmond’s expressive singing of the aria Wie lieblich klingt es in den Ohren. 

For the encore, they repeated the Gallus Omnes Saba, this time with full orchestral accompaniment, concluding with a seasonal yell of ‘Merry Christmas’. An excellent concert, contrasting music from three periods.