Six Christmas cantatas, six motets, six Brandenburg Concertos.
John Eliot Gardiner’s residency at the Spitalfields Winter Festival sees the six parts of Bach’s Weihnachts-Oratorium divided over as many evenings, as close to the appropriate celebration days as possible.
Whether or not you’re a Christian, joy can be shared, for its own sake, by all over the Christmas period and, in the third concert of the series, John Eliot Gardiner and his forces dished it up in spadefuls. What inspired programming! The varied textures of motet, concerto and cantata set off each of these jewels perfectly.
It may have been written for the funeral of Johann Heinrich Ernesti, a long-time rector of the St Thomas School, but the buoyancy of the motet “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf” and the exhortation to transcendence over death can hardly fail to uplift. Taken by Gardiner at a fair old lick, it bounced around like a boat on swelling waters, steering through the dangers and overcoming fear of the depths.
Reduced to strings, flute and keyboard, the English Baroque Soloists propelled the Fifth Brandenburg at similar speed. On harpsichord, Matthew Halls (now artistic director of The King’s Consort) was submerged in the ensemble until, bursting like sunshine through cloud, he riveted in the extended solo of the first movement. It seemed to go on forever (in the best possible sense), surely as thrilling as anything Bach ever wrote for the keyboard, winding and dipping in wave after wave.
The Third Day of Christmas is marked in one of the loveliest cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio. The subject is the shepherds’ visit to the manger and it contains two arias of the greatest eloquence and beauty: “Herr, dein Mitleid” for Soprano, Bass and two oboe d’amores, and “Schliee, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder”, in which the Alto luxuriates in the accompaniment of violin, cello and harpsichord.
The evening’s soloists shone. The glorious setting and splendid acoustic of Hawksmoor’s church rang with The Monteverdi Choir’s immaculate singing, “exultant with praises”, and the English Baroque Soloists’ superb playing. This was a joyous occasion and the remaining concerts in the series should not be missed by anyone wanting to break through the gloom of winter and media-stoked woes with sheer exuberance and consummate artistry.
This concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 7.00pm on Christmas Eve. The series continues with twice-nightly performances on 5,7 & 8 January. Further information at www.spitalfieldsmusic.org.uk