December 2016: Christmas Oratorio

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Saturday 3 December 2016
Exeter Cathedral


J S Bach's six cantatas composed to celebrate Christmas in Leipzig in 1734 make a surprisingly satisfactory whole when presented as his Christmas Oratorio, the work the Exeter Festival Chorus chose to perform on 3 December in Exeter Cathedral as its contribution to the city's festive celebrations.  The work takes us from the birth of Jesus through the adoration of the shepherds to the visit of the Wise Men, the last set against the evil machinations of King Herod.  The onus of this long work is therefore on narration but with a little judicious cutting, as on this occasion, the Oratorio's message can be comfortably accommodated within an evening's performance.

With Music Director Nigel Perrin away for a short sabbatical, the Festival Chorus had turned to Aidan Oliver, Director of London's Philharmonia Voices to conduct it at this concert.  The choir's enjoyment of singing under Mr Oliver's direction was clear from the start in the vivacious opening chorus, 'Jauchzet, frohlocket!'  Aided by flowing tempi emphasising the work's triple time (and aside from some uncertainty in 'Herrscher des Himmels' in part III), both choruses and chorales were delivered with lively confidence and appropriate attention to the German text: the opening chorus and concluding chorale in part VI were memorable examples.

Many of Bach's works benefit from the presence of a period orchestra and the Christmas Oratorio is no exception.  Take the sinfonia which opens part II, for instance.  Here Bach sets the scene for the part in the drama played by the shepherds, and through Devon Baroque's attractively colourful woodwind we heard the very realistic bleating of the sheep in the fields above Bethlehem.  Despite some untidiness at the beginning of part IV, the orchestra provided the performance with a responsive accompaniment; prominent trumpets in the more celebratory choruses and sympathetic solo violin work by Devon Baroque's leader, Persephone Gibbs, were were just two features of the orchestra's enjoyable contribution.

Much of the responsibility for the narrative element of this work falls on the four soloists through numerous recitatives, with associated arias to reflect further on the story.  A confident, if not perfectly matched, quartet had been assembled of which, as the Evangelist, much responsibility falls on the solo tenor.  With his light voice, David Webb brought welcome clarity to the role – perhaps the text suggested a little more dramatic emphasis at times, but elsewhere the several tricky runs in the tenor arias were admirably well met.  The alto soloist is sometimes required to represent Mary's sentiments, to which Kate Symonds responded sympathetically; her delivery of 'Schliesse, mein Herze' in part III had much reflective feeling.  Enhancing the impact of the work, the solo team was completed by Anna Patalong (soprano) and Benedict Nelson (bass) – the latter brought much colour to his delivery of 'Grosser Herr' in part I.

Well received by the gratifyingly large attendance in the Cathedral, the Exeter Festival Chorus can be very pleased with this performance.  Perhaps we could see Aidan Oliver in Exeter again – his direction certainly brought much evident pleasure to both participants and audience.

 David Batty