Bach: Christmas Oratorio

Bach: Christmas Oratorio (Parts 1, 2, 3, 6)
The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, Stephen Layton

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
St John’s, Smith Square, 22 December 2019

For many years now, the highlights of the London Christmas and Easter concert season has been the final two concerts of the St John’s, Smith Square Christmas/Easter festivals. One is usually Bach, the other Messiah, both directed by Stephen Layton, the first with his student Trinity College choir, the second with his professional vocal group Polyphony. In recent years both have been accompanied by the period instruments of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Both pairs of concerts sell out way in advance, the student choirs helping with audience numbers by rallying parents and friends.

This year’s penultimate festival concert was four of the six cantatas from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. They were first performed in 1734/5 in the principal city churches of Leipzig, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas, on the six feast days of Christmas, from Christmas Day through to Epiphany. All but the 5th cantata were performed in both churches on the same days.

Much of the music was previously used for Saxon royal family birthday celebrations and a coronation, perhaps questioning the notion that Bach’s music was composed Soli Deo Gloria – to the Glory of God alone. With only minor adjustments to the score (and new recitatives and chorales), these entirely secular compositions were turned into one of the most celebrated of Bach’s sacred works. Bach seems to be particularly perception at spotting the logical oddities of the Biblical story, one of which is that the Gospels suggest that Magi arrived after Jesus had already fled into Egypt! Bach’s change of the usual liturgical order of the six feast days makes a more coherent and logical time frame.

With the possible exception of the student choir singers, the rest of the assembled musicians must have performed this piece hundreds of times. But the whole thing sounded fresh and alive. Amongst many impressive contributions from the OAE, the continuo group of Jonathan Manson, cello, Elizabeth Bradley, bass, and Stephen Farr, organ deserve special mention, as do Matthew Truscott, violin, Katharina Spreckelsen and Alexandra Bellamy, oboes, Rachel Beckett, flute, and David Blackadder, trumpet.

Stephen Layton always seems to find little matters of detail afresh on each performance. I have watched him conduct for some decades, and he seems increasingly willing to let his fellow musicians just get on with it. A couple of the chorales were sung without direction or accompaniment by the choir, in a curious arrangement where they angled themselves in two sides at 45 degrees towards each other. Although I can see the benefit of doing this in rehearsal, albeit with some giggles, it looked strange in performance and had, as far as I could tell, absolutely no effect on the sound. My only slight directorial quibble was the occasional over-emphasis on mid-line punctuation in the chorales, making literal sense, but disturbing the flow of the chorale melody and sounding a little Anglican.

James Gilchrist took the role of the narrator/Evangelist, his outstanding ability to tell a story undiminished. The other major solo role is for the alto, on this occasion the always impressive mezzo Helen Charlston. She had more arias than any other soloist, many reflecting very personal aspects of the human response to the story. Her distinctively focussed voice and compelling stage manner helped to communicate this to the audience. This was most apparent in Schlafe, mein Liebster where her long-held notes seemed to have an instrumental quality all of their own. Neal Davies and Anna Dennis completed the solo line-up.

Although the lack of music in so many state schools is deplorable, it is encouraging that University college choirs, particularly of the Oxbridge variety, seem intent on maintaining a steady flow of talented musicians, whatever career they may end up in.