Celebratory Brilliance and Gentle Introspection in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach:Christmas Oratorio (parts 1, 3, 5 & 6: Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Chorus, Richard Egarr (conductor/harpsichord), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 1.12.2011 (SRT)

Mhairi Lawson (sop)
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo)
Andrew Staples (tenor)
Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone)

December arrives again, and as we open the first door of our Advent Calendar we have an excuse to listen to our favourite Christmas music again. And it really doesn’t get much better than Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. It may not have the range or the psychological penetration of the great Passions, and much of its music may be recycled from elsewhere, but who cares when the music is still so great? Bach is Bach, however you hear him, and I can imagine few better ways to hear him than in the hands of Richard Egarr.

Egarr is great at injecting a shot of adrenaline into whatever music he touches, and I’ve seldom heard the great opening chorus done with such explosive energy as here. Brass, drums and chorus all did their job to make a hair-raising opening which set the tone for a thrilling ride through Bach’s music and, tellingly, there were plenty of smiles from the musicians. Egarr’s tempi are on the fast side, but that’s not the sole source of his energy: it’s the vigour and liveliness with which he builds every phrase that reveals him as a Bach interpreter of the highest order, moulding each passage with the excitement that feels as though he were playing it for the first time. Nor were fast tempi present everywhere: he broadened out considerably for the soprano aria in Cantata 6, Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen, creating a much more sensual atmosphere with an indulgent lean into the beat which was often missing elsewhere. The effect, so long delayed, was wonderful.

The soloists were a key part of this vision. After a somewhat tentative start, Mhairi Lawson’s interpretation rounded into a rich, expressive tone which complemented the tenor of Andrew Staples very well. He anchored the whole performance with confidence and beauty of tone, not afraid to shade down his voice if the storytelling required it. Andrew Foster-Williams’ bass was rich and full but needed to be applied more temperately as his overuse of fortissimo didn’t show him off in the best light. Most beautiful of all was Clare Wilkinson whose soft, thoughtful mezzo was wonderfully responsive to the spirit of the text as well as the music. The SCO Chorus were also on great form, crisp and articulate with a palpable sense of sheer enjoyment. The ebullience of their opening chorus became gentle thoughtfulness for the chorales and they listened to each other as effectively as they sang.

The SCO themselves revelled in the large scale occasion, playing with celebratory brilliance in the big moments but gentle introspection for many of the arias. There were also some exceptional solos from, especially, the oboes, trumpet and guest leader Muriel Cantoreggi. I can think of no better way to begin the Christmas season; the only problem will be finding something to follow it!z

Simon Thompson