Bach’s Christmas Oratorio consists of six parts, or six cantatas, intended for separate days of the Christmas celebration.
Cantata 1 was written for Christmas Day, Cantata 2 for Boxing Day, Cantata 3 for the third day of Christmas, Cantata 4 for New Year’s Day, Cantata 5 for the first Sunday after New Year and Cantata 6 for the Feast of the Epiphany.
It is a mammoth task to perform all 64 movements of the six cantatas in one go (even with a twenty-minute interval after Cantata 3).
Yet William Christie and his performers stayed focused over the three hours of music making and delivered a well informed, stylish and – last but not least – beautiful performance.
The concert was a visual as well as an aural delight. The 15 members of the chorus stood in single file, forming a semicircle. The ladies looked as if they had stepped out of baroque paintings: warm colours were indicated by a purple blouse or a red scarf or blue skirt. They were tasteful, elegant and clearly complemented the baroque style of the musical performance.
William Christie must have sorted all musical matters during rehearsals, as his conducting was unobtrusive yet the performance was well oiled: everything was in place. Christie gave excellent tempos but otherwise seemed to be more presiding than imposing over the event. Indeed, during instrumental ensembles he often stopped conducting altogether.
The orchestral seating, adjusting as much as possible to the shape of a half circle, had the wind soloists in the front row while harpsichord, cello and double bass were placed to the right in the second row. Upper strings, occasional trumpets and timpani were to the left of the central wind section. The sound was magnificent. The plentiful virtuoso solo parts (flute, oboes, bassoon, violin, cello, double bass) were truly virtuosic, ensemble was tight. This is an excellent chamber orchestra.
The chorus sustained beauty and strength without any vibrato. Their pure voice production produced utmost clarity. Indeed, the sopranos sounded angelic.
All five solo singers (Marie Arnet soprano, Tim Mead counter-tenor, Nicholas Watts tenor, Marcell Beekman tenor and Markus Werba bass) fitted in well with Christie’s scholarly but also heart-warming interpretation of the score. Mead seemed to be the most at home in the style (well; if you are a counter-tenor, you do more baroque than anything else). His posture and vocal production suggested that singing counter-tenor was the easiest and most natural thing to do. Yet occasionally he puzzled me with some phrasing which seemed to go against the German text as well as musical voice leading.
There was quite a bit of walking about on stage. The solo singers sat at the side but walked to the middle for their solos and walked off afterwards. The first soprano lady in the chorus sang the short part of the Angel: she had to walk round the stage to reach her solo spot. The sound of all soloists (vocal and orchestral) was excellent; they were clearly assisted by their central position. It also made sense not to have unoccupied soloists taking up central space. But the constant walkabout was odd.
The Barbican Centre is very generous in providing free programmes for their Great Performers series (of which this concert was one). But inclusion of movement titles, even though there were 64 of them, could have assisted aural orientation more.