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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OAE: Christmas Oratorio

Bach: Christmas Oratorio 1-3, Singet dem Herrn
Choir & Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Masaaki Suzuki
Cadogan Hall. 9 December 2016

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was originally performed as six separate cantatas on the major feast days of the Christmas Day, starting on 25 December. Unlike present day marketing operations and shops, Christmas in Lutheran Leipzig started on Christmas Day, not sometime in late-October. The first three cantatas were performed on the successive days, 25, 26, and 27 December 1734, with performances in both the Thomaskirche and Nicolaikirche. The last three cantatas were performed on 1, 2, and 6 January 1735, again with performances in both churches (with the exception of Part 3 and 5, which were only performed at the Nicolaikirche).

Notwithstanding the separate nature of the six cantatas, Bach clearly saw them as a unified whole, grouping them together under the single title of Weihnachts-Oratoriumand giving the whole set a logical key structure and theme development. As in many of his major works, Bach borrowed from his previous compositions (including three entirely secular cantatas), making for fascinating thoughts about the creation of a religious masterpiece balanced against the practical considerations of coming up with so many cantatas in such a short space of time and Bach’s allocating of religious texts to music composed for secular purposes.  It is a shock to realise that, despite the importance that this work apparently meant to Bach, the Christmas Oratorio was not performed again until 1857.

Shorn of the setting of a Lutheran service in wintry Leipzig, present day performances are inevitably compromises. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment came up with the sensible plan of splitting the piece over two successive evenings, Continue reading

Spitalfields Music: Christmas Oratorio

Spitalfields Music: Christmas Oratorio
Solomon’s Knot
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 Continue reading