Classical and Opera Reviews

Christmas Oratorio @ St. John’s, Smith Square, London

22 December 2010

The counter-tenor Iestyn Davies seems to be everywhere he sang in Messiah at the Wigmore and at St Johns, and here he was this evening, giving an achingly beautiful account of the alto part in Bachs Christmas Oratorio. This performance, and the Messiah are the highlights of the 25th Christmas Festival at St Johns Smith Square, a feast of musical delights unrivalled in its variety and the quality of its performers. Those of us able to attend concerts in this unique place can count ourselves truly fortunate.

Bachs Christmas Oratorio is a work which Ive always felt ought to be as much a part of the December festivities as Messiah, but there are many years when you dont get to hear it at all. Unlike Handels work, its not for everyone, and hardly any of the music is easy to sing, so its not surprising that soloists who can do it justice are thin on the ground. Nun wird mein liebster Brutigam and Schliesse, mein Herze showed why everyone wants Iestyn Davies his elegant yet affecting phrasing, beautiful tone and seemingly effortless delivery gave constant pleasure.

The tenors music is even more taxing than that of the alto, and James Gilchrist gave deeply sympathetic accounts of the narratives whilst not quite reaching the heights of virtuosity required by Frohe Hirten, but then tenors who can deliver that arias final line as written are very rare indeed. Elin Manahan Thomas has a bright, confident tone and she sang characterfully in Herr, dein Mitleid, as did Christopher Purves, who had stepped in for Neal Davies. Purves has an extremely authoritative tone, which he used to great advantage in his recitatives, and Grosser Herr was delivered with the appropriate verbal and musical swagger.

The Choir of Trinity College has a long and distinguished tradition, going back to the 14th century, and it retains its main function of singing the liturgy in the College Chapel. Since 2006 it has been directed by Stephen Layton, sharing his affections with Polyphony: the two choirs so different, this student one producing a sound as fresh as it is intense. I loved the attack on Jauchzet, frohlocket and the sprightliness of Herrscher des Himmels although I could have done with a little more sense of awe in Brich an, o schnes Morgenlicht.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment always provides thrilling playing for these occasions: the trumpets sounded with blazing clarity, and even if leader Margaret Faultless did not quite live up to her name in her obbligato solo, she played with her customary commitment and led a performance by an orchestra at the top of its form. A performance of this work should now become an annual feature, with the same personnel please and in future, performed in full so we can enjoy such glorious music as the tenor aria Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben and the bass recitative Immanuel, o ssses Wort.

Further details of St. John’s, Smith Square concerts can be found at

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