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Bach, ‘Christmas Oratorio’  The King’s Consort and Choir cond. Robert King: Claire Booth (soprano) Hilary Summers (alto) James Gilchrist (tenor) David Wilson – Johnson  (bass)  Cadogan Hall, 17.12.2005 (ME)



‘Halloo, yah, Henree!’  The voices that carry, the self-confidence, the air of discreet wealth, remind you that you are a long way from any kind of ‘People’s Concert Hall’ here – you could only be in Chelsea, and TKC’s defection from their old venue at St John’s, Smith Square, has certainly resulted in a larger house, a more luxurious ambience and, one assumes, more moneyed sponsorship. I have always thought that the ‘Christmas Oratorio’ should be as much a part of this season’s London concerts as ‘Messiah,’ but in some years you get seven versions of the latter and none of Bach’s work: perhaps the King’s Consort will inaugurate a new tradition with it at Cadogan Hall, just as Polyphony’s annual ‘Messiah’ features at SJSS.

The KC choir has long been one of the leaders in this repertoire, and from that opening ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket! you could hear why – dramatic attack without overdoing it, retaining the ecclesiastical intimacy so important in this music, and generally smooth ensemble barring a couple of rocky patches. Herrscher des Himmels was ideally sprightly, and the wonderful Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht as tender as could be desired. I was less enthusiastic about some of the orchestral playing, which at times sounded rather rocky in exposed passages, although the trumpets and oboes were as reliably bright and fluent as ever, and the continuo provided eloquent support for the singers.

The four soloists offered singing of differing levels of commitment and skill, the alto Hilary Summers providing the most consistently fine phrasing and diction: her voice often reminds me of Janet Baker, and hearing her break into Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam  transported me right back to my first experience of hearing Bach, sung by that great mezzo – soprano. There are times when her tone could do with a little more colour, but otherwise this was very fine singing. James Gilchrist is everywhere this season, and his voice has been growing on me of late, although I continue to find him less virtuosic than I would wish, a drawback in this music: arias like Frohe Hirten are amongst the most taxing in the repertoire, and he did not have the means at his disposal for that seventeen-bar phrase. However, he offered some lovely singing in the recitatives, and his commitment to the narrative was never in doubt.

David Wilson – Johnson is a fine bass, but I find him quite a variable singer; on this occasion, he kept his face too much in the score during Grosser Herr, o starker König, an aria which really needs the most lively communication with an audience, and he gave disappointing renditions of some of the recitatives, Was Gott dem Abraham verheissen in particular sounding less than gripping – So geht den hin  however was much more vividly characterized. I found Claire Booth’s soprano somewhat indistinct, and there were pitch insecurities here and there, although Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen was well sung.

The ‘Christmas Oratorio’ may not have quite the ‘rise up to Heaven’ feel of ‘Messiah,’ but  it contains just as much great music, and its telling of the Christmas story, by turns tender and impassioned, makes hearing it a wonderful part of Advent, especially when it is performed in such perfect surroundings.



Melanie Eskenazi



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