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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Christmas Oratorio
Katherine Watson (soprano); Iestyn Davies (counter-tenor); James Gilchrist (tenor); Matthew Brook (bass); The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Stephen Layton
rec. Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, 10-14 January 2013
HYPERION CDA68031/2 [79:31 + 72:18]

As with any great work of art, there are many ways to approach Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. I really enjoyed Stephen Layton’s, but it’s strikingly different from many and I suspect it might polarise listeners. The main “issue”, if that’s the right word for it, is its distance from the unfolding story, choosing instead to focus on the beauty of the music rather than the drama. I often felt as though I was witnessing Layton’s performance from a distance, almost as through a display case, rather than engaging with it as an active participant. Part of the problem is the echoey acoustic of Trinity College Chapel. It’s unusually resonant for a work like this, the kind of space that would suit unaccompanied polyphony to a T but not quite right for a work with as many voices (instrumental and sung) as the Christmas Oratorio. That means that the big choruses that begin each cantata sound a little muddy and unclear, and even the soloists have a quality about them that seems far away and a little uninvolved. That’s not just down to the acoustic, though, but also to elements of Layton’s approach. There is a pleasing sense of celebration about the opening chorus, for example. The orchestral playing in the ritornellos is buoyant and here - as, indeed, everywhere on the disc - the choir enunciate their words with admirable articulacy. However, the approach is notably more restrained than the euphoria that, say, Gardiner or Koopman brings to the work. That may be more to your taste, though I was waiting and hoping for Layton to loosen the reins a little. That was something that kept worrying me throughout the recording, almost identically so in the choruses that bookend the final cantata. As a case in point, the Ehre sei Gott chorus in Cantata 2 takes its time with its praise where Gardiner seems to burst off the page.
In some cases that slightly distanced approach is fairly effective, particularly with the contributions from Iestyn Davies. His voice has seldom sounded more beautiful than here, and his arias are all spine-tingling, with a peculiarly ethereal quality. That’s especially true, predictably, in the great Schlafe meine Liebster. However, that means that he always feels like a somewhat distant commentator rather than a living, breathing part of the unfolding story. Nowhere is this more pronounced than at the moment in Cantata 5 when he comments on the Wise Men’s query about where to find the King of the Jews. He sounds like a voice from another world rather than a Soul who is actively interacting with the Biblical characters. Nothing wrong with that necessarily but you have to make the decision to buy into it. It’s a greater problem with the Evangelist of James Gilchrist: again, never less than beautiful but, to my ears, similarly distant from the unfolding drama. He seems to comment from a neutral perspective rather than paint a picture that unfolds before our ears. That’s less of a problem when it comes to his arias and I quite liked the way that Frohe Hirten seems to come from one of the angel messengers rather than from an earthly colleague who is egging the shepherds on. He also sings the semi-quaver runs of Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben with impressive precision and he sounds lovely during the sixth cantata in Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schrecken. Katherine Watson’s soprano is agreeably silvery giving a lovely rendition of the echo duet, Flößt, mein Heiland. She sounds very warm in Nur ein Wink in the final part. Matthew Brook brings earthy authority to the bass part. His Grosser Herr is a delightful combination of jubilation and jollity, for example. Also his recitatives brought me closer to the drama of the story than any of the other participants.
The sound made by the chorus is really very good, so long as you can accept the acoustic. For all of Layton’s restraint, they give all they can to the numbers that open each cantata. They suit the chorales much better, however, particularly the thoughtful ones like Wie soll ich dich empfangen, and the quiet confidence of chorales like Brich an also sound great. The orchestral playing is delightful, and the various obbligatos are done with virtuosity and a sparkle of delight. There are marvellously characterful solos at every point. Perhaps it helped that the recording sessions were in January when Christmas was still fresh in everyone’s minds.
I don’t want to sound too down on this recording: there is a lot about the performances to enjoy and, as I said above, if you want to wallow in the beauty of Bach’s score then few recordings will allow you to do so with as much pleasure. Many will feel, however, that there is a lot more to the Christmas Oratorio than that, and if you want urgent drama you will need to look elsewhere. We are so lucky to have so many at our disposal nowadays. For me, the finest is still Gardiner’s 1987 set. Revelatory in its day, it still sounds brilliant twenty-five years later, with outstanding recorded sound and performances that seem to burst out of your speakers. Layton’s version has an attractive slim dual case, though, and full texts and translations are included.
Simon Thompson
Previous review: John Quinn