Bach: Christmas Oratorio

Bach: Christmas Oratorio
Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, Stephen Layton

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
St John’s, Smith Square, 22 December 2018

Whatever joys the St John’s Smith Square Christmas Festival comes up with year after year (this is the 33rd), the climax comes with the final two (always sold-out) concerts conducted by the festival director, Stephen Layton, firstly with his own Trinity College Cambridge choir, and then with his professional choir, Polyphony. In recent years both concerts have been accompanied by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE). The first of the two concerts is usually Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (Parts 1, 2, 3 & 6), sung by the student choir of Trinity College, the second, Messiah, sung by Polyphony.

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Although it is obvious that Bach saw The Christmas Oratorio as a single complete work, it consists of six separate cantatas. They were performed on the six feast days of Christmas in the principal city churches of Leipzig, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas, from Christmas Day in 1734 through to Epiphany in 1735, all but the fifth cantatas being performed in both churches on the same days. Much of the music is taken from earlier compositions in 1733/4, written for two birthday celebrations and a coronation in the Saxon royal family. The fact that Bach seemed quite happy to change these entirely secular words with only minor adjustments to the score (and new recitatives and chorales), to become one of the most celebrated of his sacred works potentially says a lot about his approach to composition, and the extent to which his music can really be considered to be, as he himself suggested, composed to the Glory of God alone – Soli Deo Gloria. The same borrowing from earlier works applies to the two other oratorios that Bach composed around the same time: the Easter and Ascension Oratorios. Bach adjusted the usual liturgical order of the six feast days, ignoring the traditional Gospel readings for four of the six days, to make a more coherent, and, indeed more logical, time frame. Bizarrely, the Gospels of the fifth and sixth days suggest that the Flight into Egypt came before the arrival of the Magi!

All six cantatas would take about three hours playing time, so it is usually either performed over two concerts or, as in this case, by omitting two of the cantatas, usually the fourth and fifth: the Circumcision (New Year’s day) and the Naming of Jesus and the Journey of the Magi (first Sunday in the New Year). This grouping of four makes for a shorter and more dramatic sequence of cantatas, as three of the chosen four are powerful pieces with three trumpets and timpani. But it misses out two key parts of the complete Oratorio and a sense of repose before the blast of the sixth cantata.

Stephen Layton has performed this work many times, and it is clearly in his blood. But every time he seems to bring new perspectives to the music, inspiring the choir, soloists and orchestra to impeccable musical heights. Statistically, few of the performers are likely to believe in the truth of the Biblical stories that Bach portrays, but they all gave the impression of being hardline evangelical believers. And, of course, Bach’s music reveals detail after detail, however many times you listen to it. The opening orchestral introduction to the first chorus indicates in a few bars the strength and variety of Bach’s orchestral colours, with its interplay between timpani, flutes, oboes, trumpets and strings. The combination of Bach’s compositional genius and Layton’s sense of detail and expression is a winning one. Key interpretational moments for me included an exquisite volume fade at the end of the final chorale of the first cantata (Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein), the three trumpets having foregone their more powerful role for a lyrical one, suitable for this lullaby. Layton treats each line of the chorales as expressive entities, giving each word expressive meaning. My only slight quibble is his slight over-emphasis on mid-line punctuation, making literal sense, but disturbing the flow of the chorale melody.

The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge is one of the finest mixed-voice university choirs in the UK. It is easy to forget that some of the young singers are only about 18/19 years old, and may only have been singing in this choir for around nine weeks. The oldest are unlikely to be more than around 24. They sang from memory throughout and demonstrated extraordinary discipline in simple matters such as knowing when to stand and sit. My only slight surprise was that a number of the sopranos had already developed sufficient vibrato to be audible through the 12-strong section, initially most apparent in the first cantata chorale and recitative Er ist auf Erden kommen arm when the combined sopranos sing the chorale melody.

The four soloists were Katherine Watson soprano, Helen Charlston mezzo-soprano, Gwilym Bowen tenor, and Matthew Brook bass, the last three being the same as last year’s performance. For me, the most impressive was Helen Charlston, with her distinctive rich and focused mezzo tone. This was most notable in the aria Schlafe, mein Liebster when her voice emerged beautifully from the rich orchestral accompaniment on a long-held note that seemed to have an instrumental quality all of its own. Gwilym Bowen also excelled, bringing an expressive quality to the Evangelist’s recitatives and his arias. Stephen Layton’s speeds were brisk and to the point, and entirely appropriate.