Music

bursts with the urgency of musicians who haven’t played in months

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While Bach’s Passions are an Easter staple, the composer’s Christmas Oratorio has never quite found a foothold in the UK. It’s nothing to do with the music itself, which is as rich and humane as anything Bach ever wrote, it’s more a question of pragmatism.

Six individual cantatas come together in this vast work, each with different orchestral demands. Faced with the questions of which sections to perform and which to omit, which period instruments are essential and which can be fudged, ensembles tend to throw up their hands and just perform Messiah again instead.

Normally the solution of breaking the work down into its constituent parts – swapping a three-hour epic for six half-hour miniatures – isn’t a practical option. But Covid has turned everything on its head, offering Paul McCreesh and his Gabrieli Consort & Players the chance to restore the work to its original form, performing it as Bach would have: one cantata on each major feast day from Christmas to Epiphany.

Live from London, Bach for Christmas (Photo: Press)

Released as part of the Live From London Christmas Festival, these digital performances (recorded in the November gap between lockdowns) burst with the urgency of musicians who haven’t played in months. Small forces – just eight singers and a compact band – bring further focus to music that can sometimes sag or sprawl under the weight of massed choruses.

The first three cantatas take us from anticipatory celebration of Christ’s birth to the blissful radiance and peace of the Nativity scene itself. You can feel the mood evolving from the explosive timpani and trumpets that launch Cantata I, through the rustic music of the shepherds in Cantata II, arriving at the manger and Mary’s meditation “Schliesse, mein Herze”.

The mezzo Helen Charlston’s Virgin was sober in her joy – the dark beauty of her tone balanced by purity of line. It was just one of many highlights: the rough grain and earth tones of the oboes da caccia that open the second cantata; the filigree virtuosity of tenor Jeremy Budd and the solo flute in “Frohe Hirten” catching the haste of the shepherds; the sudden appearance of the angel chorus.

Streaming to 31 January (voces8.foundation)

Read more at inews.co.uk

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