Christmas Oratorio

Bach
Christmas Oratorio

Marie Arnet (soprano)
Tim Mead (countertenor) Nicholas Watts (tenor)
Marcel Beekman (tenor)
Markus Werba (bass)

Les Arts Florissants
William Christie


Reviewed by: Conway Boezak

Reviewed: 15 December, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

William Christie’s approach to Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” (which consists of six cantatas) proved to be a very enjoyable experience.

Christie had a good team of soloists at his disposal, the best among them being Tim Mead who combined beautiful, well-rounded tone with great sensitivity of interpretation, as well as excellent diction. The same could be said of Marie Arnet, although she was possibly the least articulate of the soloists. Some of her consonants were inaudible, and generally she could be less understood than the others; a pity given her great musicality. The superb Nicholas Watts, the Evangelist, delivered a fine performance, moving seamlessly from tenderness to drama. He made the potentially dry recitatives compelling, and thus sold the story, with no directions from Christie. Slightly less compelling was Marcel Beekman. He sang with conviction, and displayed wonderful virtuosity, especially in the concerto-style aria in Cantata No.5, but was let down by the slight tinny, hollow sound of his voice. Markus Werba was on top form too, although his voice did border on coarseness at times. In ensemble arias, the soloists really worked well together, producing a beautifully blended overall tone.

Of the singers and players of Les Arts Florissants, the (professional) choir, for all that it possessed good tone, sang with a distinct lack of conviction and intensity. It was as if these singers expected to get by on their trained voices alone; Christie’s numerous gestures for ‘more’ went mostly unheeded. Two sopranos from the choir took the short roles of the Angel and the Echo. Maud Gnidzaz sang sweetly as the former, and Brigitte Pelote’s Echo, besides being perfectly executed, was very beautiful.

The orchestra was consistently good, responding to Christie’s directions at every turn with great sensitivity and consideration. The musicians produced a wonderfully golden sound, and the ensemble was near perfect. The leader, Nadja Zwiener, had a number of violin solos, which she executed with great precision, but also with real warmth. Together with second-chair violin, Bernadette Charbonnier, she helped make the afore-mentioned ‘concerto’ aria really memorable. Special mention should be made of the trumpets and horns. Performing well any challenging Baroque repertoire is always difficult, but even more so for valve-less brass. Claude Maury and Helen MacDougall made a lasting impression with their highly secure and spirited horn-playing. Although the trumpets were less fluent, this did not really detract from their general excellence; despite numerous fluffed notes, the audience warmly received Jean-François Madeuf.

Overall, William Christie produced a thoughtful and well-conceived reading. Particularly good was his use of articulation and phrasing, as well as the justifiably spare use of dynamics. Tempos were brisk, but never rushed, and apposite for the music. Occasionally, they were too brisk, though, as in the opening choruses of Cantatas 3 and 5, which made the choir give even less than it was already. It was surprising that Christie – one of the greats – could not coax a more spirited performance from the choir.

The good points of Christie’s interpretation, though, were numerous: perfectly paced, balanced and articulated.

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