Opera + Classical Music 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 John’s, and here he was this evening, giving an achingly beautiful account of the alto part in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. This performance, and the Messiah are the highlights of the 25th Christmas Festival at St John’s 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.

Bach’s 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 don’t get to hear it at all. Unlike Handel’s work, its not for everyone, and hardly any of the music is easy to sing, so it’s not surprising that soloists who can do it justice are thin on the ground. ‘Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam’ 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 tenor’s 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 aria’s 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 schönes 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 süsses Wort’.

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

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