ACO: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

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Published: 4th December, 2017

How refreshing to go to a concert of Christmas music, even if we are only in Advent ( on Sunday 3 December) that, unlike the slew of Messiah performances at the moment, actually bears more than a tangential relationship to the season! The Australian Chamber Orchestra, augmented with brass and wind, accompanied the Choir of London at Hamer Hall in a performance of Bach’s monumental Christmas Oratorio (actually the sequence of cantatas for a sequence of important days in the Christmas season rather than a completely unified oratorio), reviving a collaboration of 2013.

Richard Tognetti mostly laid aside his violin — he played, somewhat distractingly, in just two items, one of the them the sinfonia to the second cantata, where his contribution was really unnecessary — to conduct the massed ensemble. Tognetti’s conducting style is economical to the point of being spare but doesn’t lack for effectiveness: a small gesture seemed to be enough to conjure an accent here, a swell there. Tight discipline was certainly the order of day, with only one or two moments of miscommunication in about three and a half hours’ music. Tognetti’s reading of score was pretty much by the numbers. Just one movement, Ehre sei Gott in the second cantata, seemed unnecessarily quick, but Tognetti is in good company here, as most readings of this movement add speed to what is already an almost over-busy texture. Driven as it might have been, none of the precision was lost, and Tognetti revealed again and again, as he has in other moments at the podium, an unerring ability to discover the hidden moments in an orchestration, moments that most other conductors seem to let slide, whether it be punctuating wind chords in a movement like Ehre sei Gott, or precise calculation of the length of the wind chordal accompaniment in the recitative So geht denn hin, or giving special emphasis to the twining suspensions of the horn parts in Fallt mit Danken. The orchestra were the real heroes of this concert, with every gesture in its place and an unfailing attention to details great and small. Special praise should go to the entire wind department, with a unity of sound, tuning and outlook one rarely hears in early wind playing; among them, the two principal oboes, Xenia Löffler and Michael Bosch, both on loan of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, provided probably the best playing of the afternoon, ably supported in key moments by Adam Masters and Markus Müller (oboes da caccia) and Jane Gower (bassoon). This playing reminded me of what an interesting thinker Bach was about double-reed sound, especially in movements where the orchestra is largely or only of double reeds.

The Choir of London’s biography in the programme oddly said very little about its performance philosophy or history, playing up instead its admirable commitment to social justice issues, particularly in bringing music to the Palestinian community of the Middle East. Normally that wouldn’t matter, but it did in this performance because all of the solo material, including the arduous role of the Evangelist, was taken by people within the choir. Given his role as the Evangelist, Nicholas Mulroy’s biography reveals a professionally trained singer with a good number of public appearances behind him; two other names I recognised among the ranks of the singers, Lotte Betts-Dean and Fiona Campbell, are Australian singers, also highly experienced and well trained. The rest of the soloists were a rather mixed bunch, often lacking the volume to cut above the orchestral sound (there were several moments where a singer was just lost in that sound) or the range to deal with music (two of bass soloists in particular suffered from this problem).

There were three major exceptions to this, all of whom gave quite enviable and mature performances of the music assigned to them: alto Lotte Betts-Dean, immensely characteristic and clearly engaged in the text of movements such as Warum wollt ihr erschrekken, although she had too little to sing as a soloist; soprano Mary Bevan, the sheer level of whose vocal maturity was a pleasure in her one major contribution, Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen; and Jeremy Budd, who gave perhaps the finest rendition I have ever heard, live or recorded, of the fiendishly difficult Frohe Hirten. This aria alone was worth the price of admission. Nicholas Mulroy, who must have been exhausted at the end of the work, never flagged in his double role as Evangelist and chorister. With a voice somewhat similar to that of the late Philip Langridge, he displayed that singer’s attention to the detail of the text in his recitative material.

It’s a pity that the solo material was so unevenly sung, given that as an ensemble, the Choir of London put on display their long association with this work in vibrant and engaged performance. If opportunities for quieter singing were few (Ich steh an deiner Krippe hier was a great moment of more intense and introspective performance), their readings of the bigger numbers, often the opening or closing numbers of cantatas — Jauchzet, frohlocket, Herrscher des Himmels, Herr wenn die stolzen Feinde schauben, Nun seid ihr wohl gerocken or, most importantly, Ehre sei dir Gott — were buoyant, exuberant and rhythmically incisive without resorting to egregious choralisms like over-pronounced dental consonants. No less impressive was the singing of the often-overlooked chorales, motivated by close attention to text and prosody and great musical flexibility.