OAE Christmas Oratorio

Christmas Oratorio, BWV248

Julia Doyle (soprano), Meg Bragle (mezzo-soprano), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor) & Matthew Brook (bass)

Choir of the Enlightenment

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
John Butt

Reviewed by: John-Pierre Joyce

Reviewed: 12 December, 2010
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Despite its theme, J. S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” is not a work that sits easily among the composer’s sacred pieces. It is not really an oratorio, but rather a cycle of six cantatas devised for performance over several days during the festive period. As such, it lacks dramatic unity, and much of the music was recycled by Bach from other works. The sense of originality, innovation and devotion found in his earlier Leipzig compositions is, therefore, noticeably absent.

Thankfully, John Butt and the orchestral and choral forces did a good job of bringing the oratorio’s disparate parts together. Parts One to Three during the first half of the concert were particularly well played, with Butt (standing at the harpsichord) moving the action along with brisk tempos and authoritative but encouraging direction. The players of the OAE clearly knew their parts, and there were some outstanding contributions on trumpets and oboes, and from Lisa Beznosiuk and Margaret Faultless on flute and violin.

The thirteen members of Choir of the Enlightenment also revealed a high degree of cohesiveness and subtlety in their contributions, starting with the celebratory ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket’, and moving through to the quasi-comic shepherds’ chorus in Part Three. Their less distinctive contributions in Parts Four to Six (the fault of the music rather than the performers) made the second half of the concert sag a little.

The solo singers were serviceable rather than outstanding. Nicholas Mulroy made for a light, expressive evangelist, but seldom got the chance to break out of the rather routine recitatives. Matthew Brook provided strong but minimal bass support. Julia Doyle was lucky to have the best arias, and she used her bright, clear voice to good effect. Not so Meg Bragle. Her mid-toned mezzo voice did not sit comfortably with the alto part, and several of her arias sounded too dry and bland not to pass notice.

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