Bach oratorio makes for a truly festive treat
Bach's Christmas Oratorio: St George's, Bristol
IT'S Handel's Messiah that has become associated with Christmas, but it is Bach's Christmas Oratorio, which is far less often performed, which tells the Christmas story in detail.
Bach wrote the work in six sections, one to be performed each day from Christmas Day to Epiphany, with a tenor narrator, and four soloists who comment on the meaning of the events, and a choir which celebrates by praising God in big opening choruses, and in contemplative chorales.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, always sell-out visitors to St George's, did a shorter version, with only four of the cantatas, and though it was a fortnight early, it felt as if Christmas Day had already arrived. This is a truly festive work, and the orchestra's hearty period instrument sound, so fresh and vivid, with its crisp rhythms and brisk speeds, is just right for Bach; right from the opening flourish from the timps and trumpets, the message of comfort and joy was unmistakeable.
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Bach worked in a wide variety of styles: the choir has big fugal choruses, and tender four-part chorales; the soloists sing recitatives and arias and duets, like the wonderful one between the soprano and bass in part four, so melting it could have come from an opera. There's a lilting echo song, and a fiery depiction of Herod from the bass, while the tenor gets the dramatic parts of the story to tell. As well as the superb string playing, there was an amazingly strong sound from the 13-strong young choir, with its unusual all-male alto section to add some welly, some virtuoso playing from brass and wind, and a fine line-up of soloists, Julia Doyle, Meg Bragle, Nicholas Mulroy, and Matthew Brooks, and a tireless conductor in John Butt.
Bach would have been well pleased.