The jury is out on whether, because of the miserliness of the Leipzig bean-counters, Bach was ever reduced to one-to-a-part cantatas (at least on the instrumental and adult voice lines), but had The Feinstein Ensemble and London Bach Singers been available in 1734, Bach wouldn’t have regretted using them. Wednesday night’s one-to-a-part performance (with just four singers) of the first three and the last of the cantatas of ‘The Christmas Oratorio’ at King’s Place was a compact and intense experience from the opening swirl of the flute to the final triumphant trumpet-spattered chorale Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen.
Directed with the lightest of touches by Martin Feinstein (from the flute) the 20 performers demonstrated how one instrument – or voice – to a part can allow fluidity with both tempo and texture, while maintaining a blend such that, even with three trumpets and timpani, the four voices were not overwhelmed, and no section of instruments dominated. Particularly impressive were the seamless transitions between some of the movements: the first five numbers of Part III, for example, segued straight into each other, with the final chorale of the set (Dies hat er alles uns getan) being given an elegant pull-up to mark the end of the section.
It is difficult to spotlight moments of special delight in such an outstanding performance, but the woodwind playing in the Sinfonia introduction to Part II was particularly satisfying – the flutes summoning up the 18th-century trope of the pastoral, underscored by the keening wheeze of shepherds’ bagpipes depicted by the pairs of oboi d’amore and oboi da caccia. Pedro Segundo’s timpani playing in the more grandiose movements was a masterpiece of energetic restraint, the hard sticks producing the precise percussive rhythm that is so essential in the opening movement. The sudden soft tone of the instrumental underlay in the Frieden auf Erde section of the angel chorus was enchanting, as was the fluidity of tempo in the chorale Ich will dich mit Fleiss bewahren.
The singers were carefully chosen, with enough heft to be heard over the instruments in the big choruses (and to blend with each other), yet each armed with a voice that delivered a range of subtle shades in the solo numbers. Faye Newton’s gentle-but-firm interpretation of Nur ein Wink contrasted well with the venom with which she imbued the preceding recitative (Du Falscher), and her clarion tones in the big choruses gave the trumpets a run for their money. Tim Travers Brown’s counter-tenor tends to a little shrillness at the top of the range, but this was no bad thing for the tutti sections; lower in the register, though (as in Schlafe, mein Liebster) it settled to a creamy lullaby tone. Charles Daniels is a long-established master in the field, and, as usual, undaunted by the requirement to sing Evangelist, the tenor arias and the tenor chorus part, he turned in a polished performance – a brilliant essay in fitting dynamic and tone of voice to the text being sung; his account of Frohe Hirten, with light touch and articulated runs, was magical. The bass, Ben Davies, too, is a regular on the baroque scene, and his voice works perfectly with this music, its richness and edge making for an incisive sonority that provided solid grounding in the choral numbers, and made his trumpet-aria Grosser Herr, O starker König a joy to listen to.
The Feinsteins don’t often present a choral work, but when they do, it is very much worth attending, and this one provided the choicest sparkling aperitif for the Christmas season.