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January 2017

Review: The Christmas Oratorio

Suzanne Pinkerton

Let us first, before we tackle this great work, get down to basics.  The Christmas Oratorio isn’t.  Not as we would understand oratorio - a sacred piece for soloists, choir and orchestra concentrated into one performance of the whole thing.

Bach, busy church musician that he was, produced a series of cantatas for different days of the Christmas season.  I once attended a performance in Southwark Cathedral where all of them were performed at once, and, beautiful though it was, it was a very long evening!

This was a major project, and Bach must have had the hassles anyone would in this case.  Would his tenor soloist’s cold be better in time?  An extra brass player was needed perhaps, but definitely not that one we had last time, who rolled in from the tavern across the square.  Would somebody please remind the sexton that extra candles would be needed?  My singers need to see the score.  And so on......

And so, on Christmas Day 1734, the music began.  The selection we heard was Parts 1,2,3 and 6, the last being saved for Epiphany.
Our ten stalwart singers took their places, Alison Bury was gracefully poised to lead her troops in Ensemble Passio - and we were away!  Who can resist the pom-pom-pom of the tympani under the expert hand of Tom Lee - and then up came the baroque trumpets, so lovely to look at, and gorgeous to hear.  “Jauchzet, frohlocket!” sang the singers. Jauchzen, in German, is more than just a few joyful cries - it’s full, football pitch shouting - I won’t say “yelling” in this context - and why not indeed?

James Sherlock so obviously enjoys working with a team he knows and trusts and that added to the atmosphere.

Paul Robinson is a born storyteller as the Evangelist, and he has the knack of sounding very interested in the story himself.  He wove in and out of all the cantatas, and this was always the case.  A pleasure to hear.

Other characters, so to speak, were allowed to have their say, meditating on what is happening.  Katherine Nicholson has blossomed particularly, lately, and her rendition of what is known in English as “Prepare thyself, Zion” was really well done.

Bach uses chorales at intervals, the tunes of some being familiar as hymn tunes to us, giving the congregation a chance to meditate too.

It was good to welcome back Julia Featherstone’s sunny soprano, singing with Nicholas Mogg, now an international Bach soloist, which is no surprise.

Martin Oxenham sang the well-known aria “Mighty Lord” and, as with all the cantatas, a chorale closed this one.

We now went outdoors for the second cantata, to set the scene, and there were those shepherds, with their oboes.  We could admire, during the concert, the splendid long curved oboe da caccia (hunting oboe) as well as the more familiar shape.  The choir of angels, with helpful and sweet-voiced explanations by Rachel Ambrose Evans, gave the good news.  This must be one of the most popular subjects in illuminated psalters, and, as a dog-lover I always look for the sheepdog, of no recognisable breed, sitting up, full of interest.  Keeping watch over the flocks by night is one thing, but this something really special.

Tim Dickinson, now established as one of the gang as an oratorio baritone for us, had some more to tell us about the shepherds. 

And then, a surprise. Sadly Aidan Coburn, our long-term tenor, was unwell, and at 3 hours’ notice, a credit to Cambridge and the RAM, in stepped Stefan Kennedy, who sailed through a very ornate aria with ease.

Between them Paul and Tim got the shepherds to the manger, allowing Katherine Nicholson to sing the baby to sleep, which cannot have been easy,  as at once the angels burst into “Glory to God in the Highest”.  And almost at once, the cantata concluded with a chorale.

Moving on....... The pattern was now becoming familiar - the choir leads in, and the Evengelist gives us an update, as it were.  Those of us who heard Nicholas Mogg’s tender and beautiful Rückert Lieder by Mahler in the opening concert of the Festival would expect high quality in his recitative and pleasingly blended duet with Rachel Ambrose Evans - and we got it. 00

Robin Tyson made a welcome return to us to sing both aria and recitative before the cantata drew to its close with further choral singing, and the Evangelist got the shepherds safely home.

We then jumped to Epiphany - an excellent excuse for some more trumpets.  Herod (Martin Oxenham) contributed to the Evangelist’s story, and then our latest recruit, the American soprano, Christine Buras, was rewarded for her patience with an expressive recitative and aria.  The Three Kings were moving towards their goal, and reached it, leading on to a long recitative for Stefan Kennedy, with an aria as well.  At least it was well worth his while to dash to the rescue!  Full trumpets and tympani sent us all off, certainly feeling it was well worthwhile to have come, too.  Ensemble Passio - more please!                       

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