Offering a welcome alternative to the cheesy tunes and jingling bells synonymous with the contemporary holiday season's sonic landscape, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and its resident choir presented a slice of Yuletide, 18th century-style. The concert was no Christmas miracle, as one of the soloists was not equal to the fine singing of his peers, and the performance was, overall, a little short on passion. Nevertheless, this technically strong performance brought a dignified kind of cheer to the most wonderful time of the year.

Kathryn Lewek © Athole Still
Kathryn Lewek
© Athole Still
J.S. Bach composed his Christmas Oratorio for the festive season of 1734-35,  drawing heavily on some of his earlier compositions, both sacred and secular. Each of the six cantatas focuses on a different event in the Gospels' nativity story, from the birth of Jesus to the Adoration of the Magi. Not intended to be performed in one sitting, they were spread across six feast days during that Christmas at the twilight of the Baroque period. Since the oratorio's 19th century revival, concert performances have traditionally, and appropriately, comprised a selection of the cantatas; on this occasion, the first two and last two.

The concert began somewhat disconcertingly, as the exultant opening movement saw orchestra and choir battling for supremacy so that the singers – despite being a respectable 32-strong – were borderline shouting at times. Next came tenor soloist James Oxley, who brought little joy to his narrative role (surprising given the subject matter), and whose voice was sometimes drearily thin. Following Oxley's recitative, conductor John Nelson expressed his displeasure when the audience applauded mid-cantata for a second time: the Maestro half-turned and gestured impatiently for silence. Not an auspicious start for this first of two performances.

Fortunately, the various components more or less fell into place thereafter. Countertenor Robin Blaze immediately raised the bar, as his voice had a delightfully lustrous ring in the upper register, and he brought that important quality of joie de vivre to his performance (sometimes even when seated, singing along with the choir). Gordon Bintner's warm, expressive baritone was pleasing, while the man himself had a suitably Teutonic air: tall, blonde, confident. Soprano Kathryn Lewek (in a white gown that was simultaneously slinky and graceful) was also in splendid voice. After spending almost the entirety of the first two cantatas seated in remarkably serene silence, she seized her post-interval opportunities – but also showed further discipline, holding back the coloratura fireworks her agile voice is obviously capable of, but which would be inappropriate here.

Returning to Mr Oxley, while it's essential to note that he was generally very competent, what is arguably the most significant solo vocal part in the program deserved better, particularly given the quality of the other soloists. His Second Cantata showcase aria, Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet, was more endurance than showcase, especially when ornamental vocal runs became tuneless vowel sounds.

Both orchestra and choir, (prepared by Andrew Megill) were in good form. There was a nice balance between the two after the opening-round fight, even during the Sixth Cantata's celebratory opening chorus, in which the singers' vocal force, clear diction and firm melodic line delivered one of the concert's highlights. Both groups benefited from those superb acoustics, especially the trumpets, which rang out with tonal brilliance and, though but three in number, majestic power.

Not overwhelming power, as the orchestra itself was always well balanced thanks to Nelson, who harnessed the great forces before him like his seafaring namesake directing a fleet: with precision and confidence, but also the restraint that prompted him to perch on a stool during a pretty musical tête-à-tête between soloists. However, the pursuit of technical excellence slightly sidelined the passion essential to the most memorable performances of Bach's expression of Christmas faith and joy.