The now well-established St John’s tradition of pairing the Christmas Oratorio with Messiah, performed on consecutive evenings and both featuring the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Stephen Layton, allows audiences to hear these familiar works in a fresh new light, always respecting the liturgical boundaries yet bringing home to us the human drama of the Christmas story.
The orchestra and the choir were the undoubted stars of the evening; led with distinction by Margaret Faultless, the violins reached a standard of musicianship which could not be bettered, and the ‘cellos (Luise Buchberger, Catherine Rimer) provided eloquent continuo. Flutes and oboes, led by Lisa Beznosiuk and Katharina Spreckelsen, were ideally mellifluous, and the trumpets were inspired to greatness by the master, David Blackadder. The bass aria ‘Grosser Herr, o starker Köning’ was a glorious duet between trumpet and soloist, just as the closing chorale of Part II, ‘Wir singen dir in deinem Heer’ highlighted the oboes’ fluency in accompanying the choir.
The Trinity College Cambridge choir was not named the world’s fifth best for nothing (some of us would put it higher) and this performance demonstrated a perfect combination of joyfulness and reverence, from the enthusiasm of the opening ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket’ to the quiet dedication of ‘Und lass dirs wohlgefallen.’ Stephen Layton, as Director of Music at Trinity, has worked intensively with these young singers and they are as responsive to him as is the orchestra.
If you are spoilt as we have been with the likes of Davies Iestyn and Neil amongst the soloists, you might feel that this evening’s quartet were less than uniformly excellent. The tenor Gwilym Bowen was the best of them, managing the recitative with quiet authority and singing his arias with fluency if not quite as dazzlingly in ‘Frohe Hirten’ as his forebears in the role. Matthew Brook was slightly under-powered in places, but he gave his recitatives solemnity and pathos, and he sang his part in ‘Herr, dein Mitleid’ with the required ardour.
Helen Charlston has a very striking voice with a definite ‘instrumental’ quality about it, and although it tends towards astringency at times it is used with musicality. She could afford to reveal a little more tenderness in ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’ although ‘Schliesse, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder’ was sung with definite mastery. The soprano Anna Dennis has an equally distinctive tone which lent her recitatives an air of definitiveness, and if one might miss a little sweetness in ‘Herr, dein Mitleid’ there was plenty of agility and strength in ‘Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen.’
Now that this work has become an indispensable part of the St John’s Christmas Festival, perhaps next year the same forces will return with more of it, in particular Part IV which includes the wonderful bass recitative ‘Immanuel, o süsses Wort!’ and the glorious tenor aria ‘Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben.’