In contrast to the rather more glitzy seasonal concerts on offer in London, the Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square, now in its 33rd year, gives us a solemn yet joyful break from the frantic rush of Advent, and reminds us of the emotional strength and impact of the greatest musical works based on the Christmas narrative. Both Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Handel’s Messiah were written for intimate venues such as this, and they are both of the same time period, so it’s a special pleasure to be able to experience them over just two days.
The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge was voted 5th best in the world by Gramophone magazine – just how awesome must the other four be? This youthful group of around thirty Choral Scholars and two Organ Scholars is an all-student ensemble, with its main focus on the singing of the liturgy in the College Chapel – that constant practice, working with Trinity’s Director of Music, Stephen Layton, gives this choir a special confidence and sense of unity. The choir’s contribution to the Bach was impressively without scores, and its singing of ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket!’ typified its verve and freshness, superbly supported by the brass. The rousing first chorus of Part VI, ‘Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben’ exemplified the choir’s ease with the music, an ease which comes only from constant familiarity.
On both these occasions, the choir was the outstanding aspect, Sunday’s Messiah allowing Polyphony to shine both in the more vigorous sections such as ‘He trusted in God’ and those requiring finesse and tenderness, notably ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs.’ The latter was remarkable for the sombre, very slow-paced closing phrase ‘…the iniquity of us all.’ On both evenings, Stephen Layton conducted ‘his’ choirs with the encouragement and panache we’ve come to expect from him.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played superbly on both evenings, those marvellous trumpets (David Blackadder and Phillip Bainbridge) sounding out as gloriously as ever, and the strings, led by the ever-calm Margaret Faultless, cast a halo of radiance around the singing. It is perhaps the case that the spacious, rather dry acoustic favours orchestral instruments over vocal ones.
The same four soloists graced each performance, and although there were a few reservations the singing was often beautiful and expressive. Gwilym Bowen has come a very long way since singing Second Soldier / Liberto in ‘The Coronation of Poppea’ at the Ryedale Festival in 2014, and his sympathetic demeanour and pure tenor voice are very pleasing, although he is quite taxed by some of the very high-lying music in both works. He narrated the recitatives impressively, and sang ‘Frohe Hirten’ expressively if a little tentatively. Helen Charlston has a very ‘instrument-like,’ fluent voice, capable of great agility – she was at her best in ‘He was despised’ where the natural melancholy of her tone was heard to advantage.
Katherine Watson’s lovely, sweet soprano has the ideal serenity for ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ and the required fluency for ‘Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen,’ and her performance was the strongest of both evenings. We are used to her being matched by the ‘voice of God’ in the person of Neal Davies, but on this occasion that role was taken by the reliable if at times rather stolid Matthew Brook. The latter sang ‘Grosser Herr’ enthusiastically and gave a solid performance of ‘The trumpet shall sound’ although one might feel that the brass won out over the voice on this occasion.
These two concerts concluded a festival full of musical and seasonal delights; the next St John’s Festival will be Holy Week, from Palm Sunday (14th April) to Holy Saturday (20th April) when highlights will include Bach’s St John Passion directed by Stephen Layton, on Good Friday.