United Kingdom Bach: Jessica Cale (soprano), Hugh Cutting (countertenor), Guy Cutting (tenor), Florian Störtz (bass-baritone), Chorus and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Masaaki Suzuki (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 2&3.12.2023. (JR)
Bach – Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachtsoratorium) BWV248
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is seen and heard regularly all over Germany in the run-up to Christmas during the period of Advent. Here in the UK, it is only in fairly recent years that it has become more popular – and even in danger of displacing Handel’s Messiah, although it is attempted much less often than the Messiah by amateur choirs, and hardly ever from scratch. Bach parodied earlier compositions to compile this work, as Christmas was a particularly busy time for the cantor and director of Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum. The oratorio was never intended to be performed in one concert, but over 12 days as part of church services during the festive period and during Epiphany. Singing all six parts in one concert might make some musical sense – and is very occasionally done – but it is a bit strenuous for the choir and a real test of endurance for the audience (each Part takes nearly half an hour). Masaaki Suzuki, famed for his Bach performances, founder and director of the Bach Collegium Japan, wisely spread the oratorio over two evenings, and threw in some fillers. On the second evening Suzuki presented the Sanctus and Pleni sunt coeli, which I felt were just makeweights, not a natural bedfellow to the oratorio. The acoustics and size of the Queen Elizabeth Hall suited the work perfectly.
Bach wanted sixteen singers in his chorus and drew on thirty-two as he knew many would fall foul of winter ailments. He would have used boy trebles, older boys for the alto part, and men for the tenors and basses – certainly no women (!). Nowadays, boy trebles are a rare breed, countertenors and male altos are on the rise. (I won’t discuss here the appearance usually in amateur choirs of a few women tenors). Suzuki used fifteen singers, including the soloists who joined the chorus throughout. It meant that the soloists had to dash backwards and forwards at times between numbers.
Let me deal with the soloists first. Welsh Soprano Jessica Cale is a young rising star of the Baroque world: her voice is impressively angelic, bright and light. British tenor Guy Cutting was a Rising Star of the Enlightenment, his star has now well and truly risen. He is now a sought-after interpreter of Bach, and his experience shone through in this intelligent performance. I was much taken by his virtuosic trilling in ‘Frohe Hirten’ on the words ‘labet Herz und Sinnen’ and in ‘Ich will dir nur zu Ehren leben’, accompanied very stylishly by principal first and second violins. His brother Hugh is a countertenor and took the alto role. At first, I found his voice uncomfortable on the ear but either he warmed up or I acquired the taste; I have to say I still prefer the warmer sound of a maternal (female) voice in the role, for example in ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’. Young German bass-baritone Florian Störtz was a revelation: he recently won the International Handel Singing Competition as well as the Helmut Deutsch Song Competition and I could hear why. Mark the name – you will see and hear him a great deal over the coming years and his voice is not to be missed. He was particularly moving in ‘Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen’. He made the evening(s) for me.
The Chorus of the Age of Enlightenment were exemplary: I could almost hear each voice and there was not one weak link, everyone strong and confident. Particularly impressive were the framing choruses such as the lilting ‘Fallt mit Danken’ and ‘Ehre sei dir, Gott’, taken fast. Almost needless to say, perfect German diction and intonation (though Florian Störtz’s native German diction was an added thrill to hear). Only occasionally (such as in ‘Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben’ did I yearn for greater forces, even though the fifteen singers could achieve remarkable volume.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are top of their league, with splendid principals. I highlight Romanian violinist Kati Debretzeni for her spectacular solo in ‘Schliesse mein Herze’. David Blackadder’s command of the period trumpet is always to be admired; he ended the work with a blaze. Steven Devine bobbed along on the organ with gusto, much aiding the pulse.
The fillers on the first evening were a Bach motet, ‘Singet dem Herr nein neues Lied’ (BWV 225) which I did not know, and which was charming, intricate and joyful; it made for a perfect companion piece to the first three parts of the oratorio. On the second evening, the concert began with stirring renditions of the Sanctus and Pleni sunt coeli sections from the Mass in B Minor, sung by the chorus with a wealth of experience.
And then there is the conductor. Now about to celebrate his 70th birthday, Masaaki Suzuki is one of the select band of conductors who are deeply immersed in Bach. He says it is his life. His graceful gestures added to the flow of the music, he ensured greatest attention to the text, the tempi could never be faulted; some might prefer more bite and thrust (please come back if possible, Sir John Eliot!) but the performance was justly joyful. Suzuki received very well-deserved rapturous applause from a clearly knowledgeable audience. Two wonderful and immensely enjoyable evenings from the OAE to kick off the festive period.
The OAE, having performed the work in Bregenz and Cologne, now continue their tour by visiting Prague, Hamburg, Paris and Brussels. For venues and dates click here.