Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Academy of Ancient Music/Egarr @ Cadogan Hall, London

14 December 2008

What could be more joyous than the opening chorus of Bach’s Weihnachts-Oratorium for ushering in the festive season?

The brassy exuberance of “Jauchzet, frohlocket” certainly put a smile on the faces of both soloists and audience at the AAM’s performance of four parts of the work at Cadogan Hall

Written in six parts, each a cantata in its own right, the Christmas Oratorio interweaves the familiar story of Christ’s birth with reflective passages and prayer-like bursts of praise. The brass and timpani opening rejoices in the moment, before the narrative (delivered by the tenor Evangelist) sets the scene for the nativity.

Under Richard Egarr’s buoyant direction from the keyboard, the AAM gave a refined performance of just four of the six cantatas, with a strong line-up of soloists and full-voiced AAM Choir. James Gilchrist (tenor), Lorna Anderson (Soprano), Barbara Kozelj (Mezzo) and Christopher Purves (Bass) each grabbed their moment to shine.

Egarr jumped over Part 2 (in which the Shepherds watch their flocks by night) and took us straight from the birth into the visit to the manger. The glorious Aria “Schliee, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder”, with an alluring Kozelj, solo violin and harpsichord, stood out as a passage of great beauty. The da capo final chorus of Part 3 took us into the interval with a brassy flourish recalling the work’s opening.

The fourth cantata, which deals with the Circumcision of Christ, was absent (that particular part was cut, one could say) and the second half opened with the more gentle and lyrical Part 5 (the Wise Men’s summons to Bethlehem), in which the lovely oboe d’amore predominates.

If it looked as though Gilchrist’s incisive tenor, beautifully articulated and crystal clear, was in danger of being wasted entirely on recitative, we got to hear him in full flow during the Trio Aria (“Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen?”), alongside the soprano and mezzo, with the solo violin almost a fourth protagonist. The drama of this dynamic made for another stand-out section. Part 6 returned us to the bounce and bang of trumpets and drums.

With no surtitles and, due to some sort of printing crisis, no programmes, there was little to guide those who hadn’t had the foresight, or resources, to bring their own librettos or scores. Egarr tried to make up for this in the second half with a belated but jovial off-the-cuff commentary.

The following night, John Eliot Gardiner began a series of concerts as part of the Spitalfields Festival, performing one of the six parts of the Christmas Oratorio, in conjunction with a Brandenburg Concerto (the series continues into the New Year).

If there’s authenticity about this approach, each part of the work being performed separately in its proper context, there’s nothing to beat hearing them all together. In fact, four cantatas felt scarcely enough I would have happily sat through all six when delivered with the panache and passion that Egarr and his forces showed on this occasion.

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