Christmas Oratorio (Cantantas 1, 2, 3 and 6) - J. S. Bach
Review by Janet Hornby:
In this country we associate Handel’s Messiah with Christmas but in Europe, and particularly in Germany, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is more usually sung. A substantial audience in St Andrew’s church was looking forward to Christmas with a difference! However Christmas Oratorio was written to be sung at six separate services from Christmas Day 1734 to Epiphany 1735 rather than in one session in concert, so the first question when performing it is to decide which of the six parts to sing. The Penrith Singers under the direction of Colin Marston solved this problem admirably by choosing the first three cantatas of the Oratorio plus the sixth: the four cantatas included two stirring ones with trumpets and timpani and two more reflective pastoral ones while retaining the flow of the Nativity narrative from St Luke and St Matthew.
The performance on Sunday started with a flourish of trumpets and rhythmic energetic singing from the Penrith Singers, with the sopranos matching the bright sound of the trumpets on the high notes. The ladies’ red scarves added to the festive feeling! The tenor, Richard Pollock, as the Evangelist began the story with the familiar words from St Luke’s Gospel, clearly projected and propelling the story onwards. Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, only twenty-two-years-old, sang the first aria with well-controlled ornaments and coloratura; and then the baritone Mario Solimene followed with a velvety legato. The birth of Jesus was described and we moved into the shepherds’ tale with the pastoral Sinfonia. As the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds, the choir sang, "Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light" with fervour and intensity. Then the soprano Emma Peaurt stood for the first time in the role of the angel, arresting in her delivery of the news, striking in her red dress. Later she sang a duet with the bass in which their two lines were perfectly matched and phrased.
Highlights from the Penrith Singers were the heavenly host singing "Glory to God" in an exuberant chorus with every line and entry well-marked. This contrasted with the calm word-painting of the section "And peace on earth". There was beauty too in the dynamics of the chorale "Thee with tender care I’ll cherish"; and in the clarity of the descending bass line in "Beside thy cradle here I stand". The final chorale was rousing with the legato chorus lines floating through the complex orchestral writing and the performance rounded off with a reprise of the first chorus.
The orchestra led by Susan Johnson tackled Bach’s complex writing competently and with energy. Ian Hare provided strong support on the organ continuo. Thank you to the Penrith Singers and Colin Marston for such an enjoyable opportunity to prepare for the message of Christmas.