It is a very special experience to hear Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in St John’s, Smith Square, since Bach’s work was first performed in the Christmas season of 1734/5, and Thomas Archer’s church had been completed just six years previously. This oratorio is now as firmly established in musical London’s Christmas celebrations as Polyphony’s Messiah (on Monday night, same place, same soloists and conductor) and the combination of Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge and the evening’s soloists could not be bettered.
Stephen Layton conducts this music with joyful irreverence, not in the sense of disrespecting the work’s religious origins but so as to bring out all the rich human drama of the story. He obtains brilliant playing from an orchestra at the top of its form; the glorious, ‘silver, snarling’ trumpets, led by David Blackadder, the swirling flutes and oboes, led by Lisa Beznosiuk and Katharina Spreckelsen, and the mellifluous violins under Margaret Faultless’ inspiring musicianship, formed the perfect accompaniment to a team of soloists and a choir which would be hard to equal in any venue.
The narrative was in the capable hands of James Gilchrist, whose clear, at times reedy tone is the perfect vehicle for storytelling, even if his more florid passages in the arias don’t provide quite enough vocal fireworks. He is at his best in the tender moments of the recitative, where such phrases as ‘und bewegte sie in ihrem Herzen’ strike straight to the heart. Iestyn Davies sang the alto solos with assured fluency and wonderful control, ‘Schliesse, mein Herze’ an especially fine demonstration of his skill.
Neal Davies seems to sound more and more like the ideal Handelian bass each time I hear him; Bach’s music requires the same commanding phrasing and ability to sound both declamatory and tender as required, and the bass arias and recitatives on this occasion had the true stamp of greatness – ‘Grosser Herr, o starker König’ was magnificent. Monday’s ‘The Trumpet Shall Sound’ should be an aria to relish. Katherine Watson made quite an impression at Glyndebourne this year with her Diana in Hippolyte et Aricie; she allies a bell-like clarity of tone with gravity of manner, and her recitatives and aria gave constant pleasure.
The Trinity College Choir gave a superb account of the chorales and choruses, delivered without a score in sight, every section alert to the nuances of the narrative, from the unbridled joy of ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket’ to the grandeur of ‘Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen’. The same choir, conductor and soloists, with the one exception of Neal Davies, can be heard on a new Hyperion recording which is sure to challenge the versions already in the catalogue.
Further details of St. John’s, Smith Square concerts can be found at www.sjss.org.uk