Bask in the afterglow of Bach’s magnificent Christmas Oratorio thanks to Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort and Players

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Live from London Christmas – Bach, Weihnachtsoratorium, BWV 248: Soloists, Gabrieli Consort and Players / Paul McCreesh (conductor), plus chorales from Gabrieli ROAR.  St John’s, Smith Square, London. Livestreamed 25.12.2020 to 6.1.2021. (CC)

Cantata VI – Soloists, Gabrieli Consort and Players, Paul McCreesh (conductor)

Cantata I (The Birth of Jesus) – Jauchtzet, frohlocket!: Anna Dennis (soprano), Tim Mead (countertenor), Hugo Hymas (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass); plus, Sinfonia from Cantata No.29, Wir danken dir Gott, wir danken dir, (25.12.2020)

Cantata II (Shepherd and Angels) – Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Tim Mead (countertenor); Jeremy Budd (tenor), Roderick Williams (bass); plus, Sinfonia from Cantata No.42, Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats, (26.12.2020)

Cantata III (At the Manger) – Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen: Anna Dennis (soprano), Helen Charlston (mezzo), Hugo Hymas (tenor), Roderick Williams (bass), plus Sinfonia from Cantata No.169, Gott soll allein mein Herze haben, (27.12.2020)

Cantata IV (The Naming of Jesus) – Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Laben: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Tim Mead (countertenor), Jeremy Budd (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass), plus Sinfonia from Cantata No.52, Falsche Welt, dich trau ich nicht, (1.1.2021)

Cantata V (Herod) – Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen. Anna Dennis (soprano), Helen Charlston (mezzo), Jeremy Budd (tenor), Roderick Williams (bass), plus Sinfonia from Cantata No.49, Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen, (3.1.2021)

Cantata VI (The Three Kings) – Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben: Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Helen Charlston (mezzo), Hugo Hymas (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass), plus Sinfonia in D, BWV 1045, (6.1.2021)

This could have been labelled Bach’s ‘Christmas Oratorio Plus’: McCreesh borrowed some of the instrumental Sinfonias from elsewhere in Bach’s output as a sort of Overture to the six cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio (in Bach’s day those would have been played while the audience settles); in addition there was the education project ‘Bach to School’ that encouraged British schoolchildren to sing Bach chorales (the project was called Bach in fancy dress, honouring Bach’s decorations to the chorales).

For the first day, the cantata on the birth of Jesus, it was the Sinfonia to the cantata Wir danken dir Gott, wir danken dir, BWV 29, an organ concertato, a fabulous, vibrant piece, with William Whitehead nimble in the solo organ part.  A magnificent performance: then came that Chorale, sung in English as ‘Awaken, Lord, and hasten,’ from the cantata BWV 22 by Gabrieli ROAR: the Gabrieli Consort was recorded in the VOCES8 Centre, with video shots of the various choral groups of young people injected onto the screen. A celebration of youth as well as an ingenious use of technology at this compromised time, throughout these were little pockets of energy. I do wonder if it might have been an idea to lose the commentaries and put them all at the beginning as it feels piecemeal to have a long chat with Paul McCreesh (BACHCHAT) after the schools’ chorale and before the Cantata proper. Fascinating to hear Paul McCreesh though, incredibly wise, and always on point. He was also correct to say the Christmas Oratorio is not performed as much here as it is in other parts of Europe (as we can get bogged down with a plethora of Messiahs). Notable that, as Masaaki Suzuki has also done, the chorales and choruses were performed with solo voices, which, as McCreesh expanded on in the very final chat of the experience, has plenty of historical evidence to support it. The four-voice texture of ‘Lauchzet, frohlocket’, the opening chorus of Cantata I, seemed to sparkle in this performance, while allowing for a remarkable translucency of orchestral texture. Soprano Anna Dennis sang with astonishing purity of tone while Neil Brough and Katie Hodges’s trumpet contributions sealed the annunciatory, and celebratory, atmosphere. The tenor Hugo Hymas, as Evangelist, was simply superb (as he was to be in the later cantatas too): not a name I knew well but one I hope to hear again. One of the defining factors of Hymas’s success was the consideration he gave to recitatives; in the process, they became just as relishable as the arias.

McCreesh’s fast tempo for ‘Bereite sich, Zion,’ the aria for alto (here countertenor Tim Mead) gave it huge energy, plus enabling maximal contrast to the slow, meditative tempo for the chorale ‘Wie soll ich dich empfangen?’ (‘How shall I embrace You?’). Ashley Riches’s aria ‘Grosser Herr, o starker König’ (‘Great Lord, O powerful King’) with obbligato trumpet (Neil Brough again, this time with splendid lip trills) comes with all the confidence and assurance one associates with this singer. Riches’s definition in runs marks his singing – especially in the bass Fach it is so easy to muddy these – while hearing his fully-formed upper register is a joy in itself.

For the added sinfonia to the Second Cantata, McCreesh chose the rarely heard ‘Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats,’ BWV 42, composed in Leipzig for the First Sunday after Easter (Quasimodogeniti), a pair of oboes plus Baroque bassoon gifted a starring role. Itself possibly taken from Bach’s lost cantata Der Himmel dacht auf Anhalts Ruhm und Glück, BWV 66a, it contains some affecting harmonic shifts, huge dark clouds that scud across the music’s surface.

From Cantata 79, ‘Nun danket alle Gott’, was sung by Gabrieli ROAR with two magnificent obbligato natural horns.

In terms of the Christmas Oratorio itself, we move from the celebratory nature of Cantata I to two flutes and four oboes in the scoring (A pair of oboes d’amore a pair of oboes da caccia) as a shepherd’s band as Bach explores his pastoralism. Gentle rockings replace the pomp of the first cantata, and McCreesh softened his approach appropriately.

This second cantata includes the most remarkable aria for tenor, ’Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet’ (‘Happy shepherds, hurry, oh hurry’), where tenor Jeremy Budd was joined by the obbligato flute of Katy Bircher. As the diminutions grow in complexity, so the technical challenges ratchet up. Jeremy Budd has an even tone over his entire range (the aria takes the voice far down as well as up nice and high). Fascinating to hear voice and flute in dialogue, at speed. A remarkable highlight: the other aria in this cantata is ’Schlafe, mein Liebster’ (‘Sleep, my beloved’), almost a lullaby set up by an extended orchestral section whose sound is coloured poignantly by those oboes. Here it was Tim Mead who triumphed, not least in projecting the words so beautifully while in cantabile. This was Mead at his finest, his voice glistening.

But let us not forget those chorales: a gloriously peaceful ‘Schaut hin, dort liegt im finstern Stall’ (‘Look there, there He lies in a dark stall’), while the final melding of chorus and shepherds’ pipes in ‘Wir singen dir in deinem Heer’ (‘We sing to You in Your host’) was brilliantly realised (and beautifully introduced by Roderick Williams’s recitative), leaving us with a feeling of serenity and consolation.

Day three (‘At the manger’), began musically with the Sinfonia from the solo alto cantata, BWV 169, Gott soll allein mein Herz haben, active, gloriously fresh, rigorous yet jaunty thanks to the way McCreesh handled the anacrusic figure. William Whitehead was the superb organist (this is almost a concerto movement; it sounds like Bach’s version of a Handel Organ Concerto, perhaps? Or is that heresy?). A brilliantly life-enhancing performance of magnificent music, and one of the true highlights of the entire six-day experience. The Gabrieli ROAR contribution was the Cantata 24 chorale ’O ever faithful God’, one of the more lachrymose chorales, darkly scored.

Although a very different soprano from Caroline Sampson, Anna Dennis also has a knack of creating the most silken soprano line. She was joined here by mezzo Helen Charlston and the two voices matched beautifully. And in this cantata, the decision to use solo voices for the chorus paid off in spades: the tenor’s short recitative elided perfectly into the flute-gilded chorus, ‘Lasst uns nun gehen gen Bethlehem’ (‘Let us go now towards Bethlehem’).

‘Herr, dein Mitleid’, (‘Lord, your compassion’), a duet for soprano and bass found Anna Dennis and Roderick Williams as an ideal pairing, their phrasings beautifully matched, while the violin obbligato to the alto aria ‘Schliesse mein Herz’ (‘Enclose, my heart’) revealed the utter velvety beauty of Helen Charlston’s mezzo; the violin obbligato (Catherine Martin) was almost as superb. Bach creates a registral gap between the solo violin and continuo, with the voice sitting in the middle. In a tight-knit construction such as this the idea of having solo voices for the chorus works perfectly, enhancing the sense of ensemble.

The Sinfonia from Cantata BWV 52, which opened the Fourth Cantata, is better known in its guise as a movement from the First Brandenburg Concerto (here with Richard Bayliss and Richard Lewis on horns), heard here in a rhythmically perfect performance; the added chorale was from the Cantata BWV 167, ‘Your soul now praise your maker’.

The choice of the ‘Brandenburg’ was perfect given the two horns in this piece. One must admire the supreme confidence of the soprano (Carolyn Sampson) and oboe (Katharina Spreckelsen) in ‘Flösst, mein Heiland’, (‘O my saviour’) with Anna Dennis as the soprano ’echo’; and all credit to tenor Jeremy Budd for his agility in his aria, ‘Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben’ (‘I will live only for Your honour’) and to the string players for their unanimity of articulation. The final pseudo-chorale beings back the horns, rounding off this astonishing piece.

The Fifth Cantata event began with a wonderfully sprightly Sinfonia, here that from Cantata No. 49, Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen. Here we were also treated to two ‘chorales in fancy dress’, or more accurately the same chorale melody in two versions: those from Cantatas 75 and 100 (‘What God ordains alone is right’), the second more celebrational of which of which holds some screaming horn parts.

Cantata No.5 begins with chorus of celebration and praise that contains real challenges for its singers: Roderick Williams’s nimbleness at speed is, in particular, remarkable. Two standouts from this cantata: Helen Charlston’s way with recitative, perfect in its diction as she reflects on the Saviour’s radiance, and the ultra-beautiful trio for soprano, tenor, and alto (Anna Dennis, Helen Charlston and Jeremy Budd), a plea for comfort.

Cantata VI – Carolyn Sampson (soprano), Helen Charlston (mezzo),
Hugo Hymas (tenor), Ashley Riches (bass), & Paul McCreesh (conductor)

The final cantata event began with the Sinfonia in D, BWV 1045, which features virtuoso string writing (brilliantly executed: one felt some of the writing was more appropriate for Biber than Bach!) and was written for a cantata the balance of which is now lost. But one piece which is very much hard-wired into the Western world’s consciousness is the chorale from the Cantata, BWV 147, known in English as Jesu, joy of man’s desiring. As McCreesh put it, the power of belief will always triumph. As ever, Paul McCreesh’s commentary was enlightening but also invited in enthusiasm: his mix of scholarship and clear love for the music was a vital part of the success of this enterprise.

The ascending perfect fourth of each phrase in the singers in the opening chorus of this sixth cantata, ‘Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben’ (‘Lord, when our proud enemies snarl’) acted like an injunction, each soloist as strong and confident as the next.

A special mention in this cantata for Hugo Hymas’s tenor voice in his recitative: there is a depth there that is most appealing. His aria ‘Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schrecken’ (‘Now, you arrogant enemies, you may tremble’) revealed the full strength of his voice, a magnificent performance of a magnificent aria. The astonishing recitative with all four voices in imitation showed how carefully soloists have been chosen for this project, before trumpets blazed in the final ‘Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen’ (‘Now you are well avenged’).

This was the most convincing case I have yet heard for the use of solo voices in chorus for this piece. McCreesh referred to ‘overwhelming evidence’ that Bach’s performance practice was to use the solo voices. In modern terms, this means that the idea of stepping out from a collective makes the whole performance more ‘organic’ as opposed to having soloists sat silently waiting for their big moments.

Of course, just as Easter eggs are already in the shops, we hear about the Live from London Spring Festival: VOCES8 with the English Chamber Orchestra in Fauré’s Requiem, plus a collaboration with Rachael Podger, and a Jonathan Dove song cycle The Passing of the Year with VOCES8. One door closes, another opens; but for the moment let us just bask in the afterglow of Bach’s magnificent Christmas Oratorio.

Colin Clarke

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