At the time of its composition in 1734 and right into the twentieth century, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was criticised from some quarters for recycling many of his secular cantatas. Charges ranged from simple laziness to the idea that using secular music in church would annoy God. Today, when it comes to Bach’s music at least, we are more inclined to subscribe to the view of eighteenth century theologian Gottfried Ephraim Scheibel that ‘religious and secular music have no distinctions as far as the movement of the affections is concerned’, but the act of performing the piece in the Barbican Hall brought its own dynamic to the proceedings. If the oratorio was ever accused of demeaning a religious establishment, on this occasion it surely raised a secular venue to the realms of the ethereal.
Under the direction of Richard Egarr, who conducted from the harpsichord, the Academy of Ancient Music revealed all of the precision and control for which it is renowned, whilst also bringing the necessary levels of exuberance to the pieces. Although all six cantatas work to a fairly similar formula, the variation contained within each, combined with the sheer quality of playing, ensured that the lengthy evening never dragged. Indeed, given that each has its own unique beauty, it seems more astonishing that some performances do choose to cut a cantata.
One of the particular delights of the playing was the way in which brass, string, wind, organ and percussion lines were all clearly delineated, but together created the most coherent, blended whole. The same was true of the chorus where each vocal line could clearly be heard, while strong balance across all of the voices was maintained.
Some of the evening’s many highlights occurred when the excellent soloists sang arias in which their voices could interact with a solo instrument. Ashley Riches took the bass part and his voice revealed depth and warmth while maintaining clarity by not indulging in too excessive a vibrato. His performance of ‘Grosser Herr, o starker König’ was particularly fine as the solo trumpet rang out.
As the Evangelist James Gilchrist brought an ethereal lightness to his tenor instrument, but impeccable enunciation, strong shaping of sound and the ability to apply a little more weight when necessary generated some intensely moving moments. His performance of ‘Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet’ also benefited from the wonderful flute solo, while ‘Nun mogt ihr stolzen Feinde schrecken’ provided a model lesson in how to micromanage dynamic variation and achieve rhythmic tension.
Barbara Kozelj’s alto had a sumptuous and rounded quality and interacted well with Pavlo Beznosiuk’s solo violin in ‘Schliesse, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder’. Lorna Anderson had stepped in to replace Susan Gritton at very short notice, but her soprano positively glistened and shone in ‘Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen’. Her voice also worked well with Riches’ in their ‘duets’ (combining recitative and chorale) ‘Er ist auf Erden kommen arm’, ‘Immanuel, o süsses Wort!’ and ‘Wohlan, dein Name soll allein’.