Bach: Christmas Oratorio

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Decca L’Oiseau-Lyre
WORKS: Christmas Oratorio
PERFORMER: Catherine Bott (soprano), Michael Chance (countertenor), Paul Agnew, Andrew King (tenor), Michael George (bass); New London Consort/Philip Pickett
CATALOGUE NO: 458 838-2
Pickett usually brings a novel approach to familiar music. The layout of a putative performance venue underlay his visionary Monteverdi Orfeo; controversial allegories coloured the Brandenburgs. Here, now, are the six cantatas of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with instruments one-to-a-part, immediately spine-tingling in their clarity, and demonstrating that three Baroque trumpets discreetly placed and (more importantly) properly played need not overpower single strings. For something as celebratory as Christmas – and the secular festivities from which much of the music was borrowed – Pickett’s choir is larger, soloists and reinforcements making three voices to a part. While the solo quartet and Evangelist are intensely characterful, no hint of incompatible individualism mars their gloriously fresh choral sound, for instance in the fugue which opens Part 5.

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Individually the soloists are outstanding, too. King’s shepherds ‘haste, ah, haste’ with lightly tripping steps, Chance’s cradle song is ecstatic above the measured rocking of flute and oboes. The scale of the accompaniment allows him to under-sing – in ‘Prepare thyself Zion’ – with heart-warming effect. Similarly Paul Agnew, simply the most naturally expressive Evangelist I have ever encountered, often almost whispers the wonders of the Nativity.

Chorales proceed without pauses, (surely correct, as Bach adds, in other cantatas, ongoing instrumental lines through their cadences), and the pace throughout is totally convincing – riveting virtuosity matched by affecting lyricism.

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Much as I have admired Gardiner’s dramatic vision (Archiv), Christophers’s silken polish (Collins) and Koopman’s persuasive energy (Erato), this outstanding performance creates a sense of guileless sincerity which is utterly captivating. George Pratt