Bach's Christmas Oratorio

With The Choir of New College, Oxford.
New College Choir under its new director, Robert Quinney
Sheldonian Theatre, Broad Street, Oxford OX1 3AZ, Thu 15 December 2016

January 6, 2017

This is a rather perfect seasonal treat: a work that does the sacred/secular dance, like the festival of Christmas itself is made to do; one that (lowbrow metaphor ahoy) is a proper selection box of textures and melodic quotations; music somehow luminous and archaic as a late night winter stroll from the RadCam to Cowley. The Oxford Phil and New College Choir bring enough gusto to animate and enough restraint to communicate these reshaped Bach works.

We begin with an eruption of praise: 'Jauchzet, frohlocket! auf, preiset die Tage,' ('shout for joy, exult, rise up, glorify the day...') which was originally composed for the birthday of Queen of Poland, and is repurposed here, as are many secular commissions; a collapsing of sacred and secular onto one masterfully filled plane. The sweet omnes/tutti timbre is maximally joyous, and its vocal span and horn timbre have the feel of regality. My seating position, close to double bass, organ etc, is the equivalent of whomping up the low-end EQ, and makes the sound-field instantly less dainty. It also produces the impression of different sections moving at different speeds. Violins hang their unbroken chains of quavers, seemingly faster than bass section – possibly an aural illusion but evokes uncontainable joy, which can't be half bad!

Our Evangelist, in this account of the birth of Christ, is tenor Nicholas Mulroy, vibing off the cello motifs and inhabiting his role as if he's speaking it for the first time. This brings old words to life. The first countertenor, Tom Hammond-Davies, gives a pleasingly tactile performance, if some of the lower notes are lost in the overall texture. What a place to get lost – as he sings of incarnation, the Sheldonian's ceiling itself shows a painted scene of the heavens rending. The architecture of this music is sturdy, the harmonic relations between sections yielding more rewards than many notice.

The second countertenor soloist, Alexander Chance, does a genuinely arresting job. Through his vocal control, he gives a masterclass in how to sustain notes - the resulting crystalline timbre brings the best out of immaculately constructed lines. He moves in unison with the woodwinds in the aria 'Schlafe, mein Liebster', which functions as a lullaby: this is one of the new compositions Bach saw fit to write when creating or compiling the Oratorio, as pointed out by Nick Breckenfield's illuminating programme note. When the Evangelist returns, duelling with Tony Robb's principal flute, the variation in ensemble is like a breath of freshness. It's a Purcellian arrangement - St. Cecilia isn't miles away - and one could imagine that flautist playing Syrinx or other Debussy, and this voice in a proto-romantic role. But the instrumental forces are, satisfactorily, baroque as hell: oboes d'amour, and reasonably small sections, are allowed to fill the (let's remember) not-huge space.

So a live performance yields rewards unnoticed in a recording: the sense of a space suddenly being filled when SATB join soloists and orchestra is uniquely to be experiences in three dimensions; here, the overtones of harpsichord dancing over a string ensemble; there, the conspiratorial smiles between viola-players. The divine is in the details - but all in all, this was a jubilant and occasionally transporting performance of Cantata 1-3.

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