Christmas Eve in Oxford, surrounded by iconic architecture and a palpable sense of history is a good start, but enjoying Bach's Christmas Oratorio in the soaring setting of New College Chapel was sublime.
Oxford Bach Soloists, conducted by Tom Hammond-Davies, performed the first three parts of the Oratorio on period instruments. From its opening joyous chorus Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage, to its magnificent closing one: Herrscher des Himmels, erhore das Lallen our spirits were lifted.
According to Alfred Durr's helpful programme notes, the Christmas Oratorio was intended to be sung in its entirety (seven parts in all) over the 13 days of the Christmas period. As a devotional work, the libretto was published in advance of the performances for the congregation.
Although not certainly the author of the text, Picander could claim credit for crisp economy in the story of the Christ child's birth, to the wonder of the Angels appearing to the shepherds - and masterly parody in certain passages, including the opening chorus, enjoyed by the musicians and soloists alike.
Wonderful playing by instrumentalists, including Rosie Moon's double bass, Gabriel Amherst's cello, Alexander Hamilton's organ and Sebastian Gillot's harpsichord, was complemented by period instruments, and Caroline Balding's superb lead violin.
Tenor Daniel Norman's Evangelist narrative thread was pellucid and beautifully nuanced; his tenderness in Und sie gebar ihren ersten Sohn magical. Ben Davis' bass was rich and full, and Celia Osmond's soprano lovely both in solos and also duets such as Furchtet euch nicht… Lila Chrisp's alto aria solo Schliesse, mein Hertze was particularly enthusiastically received, a testament to the Oxford Bach Soloists ' commitment to young performers, of whom superb viola player James Orrell was also notable.
As we walked from the Chapel into the night, it was a perfect herald of Christmas festivities and a reminder of why we celebrate them.