English Chamber Orchestra/Howard Williams

Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Cadogan Hall, 15 December 2007 3.5 stars

Howard Williams

The Choir of the 21st Century is an amateur group but their performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio (accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra) would have been difficult to better by any professional ensemble. Indeed, rarely can one hear such clarity of musical and verbal diction, dynamic range, variety of vocal colours, artistic discipline and - last but not least - uniform pitching. It is also true to say that few amateur choirs (if any) have the privilege of working with such a skilled and experienced principal conductor as CC21's Howard Williams.

Although the six cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio were intended to be performed on six specific days between Christmas (25 December) and Epiphany (6 January), Bach himself gave the work the title Christmas Oratorio, thus suggesting that it is a single unified work. When performed in its entirety it can be a bit long for practical purposes (such as getting to the concert on time or getting the last train home). On this occasion a sizeable cut was the solution: the Trio, Recitative and Chorale concluding Part V as well as the substantial opening chorus of Part VI were missing. It is a shame that the otherwise excellent programme notes omitted to mention this cut, leaving the unsuspecting observer to think that Bach finished Part V with a recitative and then started Part VI with another recitative. Nevertheless, I hasten to add that the cut made practical as well as acceptable artistic sense.

The opening timpani bars were disappointing because of the harsh, dry sound (which could be a matter of acoustics in Cadogan Hall) and the lack of differentiation between strong and weak beats determining the pulse, but soon all was well when Williams' excellent tempo accommodated rhythmic diction. Williams' conducting technique - often using only one of his hands, often varying pulses between each beat and each bar - added clarity to harmonic accents and to the range of musical intensity. Bach's intricate polyphony was well defined - and thus beautiful - in all choral numbers.

Tenor Charles Daniels, singing the part of the Evangelist, told the story with great variety of vocal nuances and in what might determine as perfect baroque style. Soprano Joanne Lunn gradually warmed into that style as the performance went on. Tenor Mark Le Brocq delivered his arias with authenticity and he was particularly impressive with his effortless technique in the virtuoso 'Ich will nur zu Ehren leben'. In her first aria - 'Bereite dich' - alto Catherine Denley used vibrato which was not in accordance with the other solo singers (who used less or no vibrato at all). Nevertheless, her control over long sustained notes (and by then without vibrato) in 'Schlafe, mein Liebster' was impressive, as was her musical phrasing. Ironically, only bass Stephan Loges - born and educated in Germany - caused me displeasure with his German (and musical) pronunciation. He kept giving the same emphasis to syllables, regardless of which part of a word (or bar) they appeared in. For instance, the word 'zücket' appears over two quavers at the end of a 4/4 bar (Recitative and Chorale, starting with the word 'Wohlan!') where Loges sang the last note (syllable) as strongly as the preceding one.

In her violin solo over the alto aria 'Schliesse, mein Herze' Stephanie Gonley played with exquisite baroque style and polyphonic awareness. Unfortunately the solo cellist, the third participant in the aria, played with a big vibrato as if in a romantic cello concerto. The solo cellist also clashed with the solo bass in the tenor aria 'Ich will nur dir zur Ehren leben' where she used big vibrato and long bow strokes while - playing the same notes - the bass player used no vibrato and crisp, short bow strokes. In the same aria, the two solo violins kept a uniform style. The oboe solos were exemplary all way through, the solo trumpet tackled his virtuoso part in the final Chorale with brilliance but out of tune on crucial notes. So the otherwise jubilant finale concluded flat in the literally sense of the word. Nevertheless, this was a performance to cherish.

By Agnes Kory