Taking a break from a long run of Christmas Messiahs, Royal Northern Sinfonia turned this year to Bach’s joyful celebration of Christ’s birth. The work we know complete as the Christmas Oratorio is actually made up of six separate cantatas, which were performed on the feast days from Christmas Day to Epiphany: tonight we heard the first three cantatas, which tell of Christ’s birth and the angels bringing the news to the shepherds, and then number six, which covers the visit of the Magi and looks forward to Christ’s eventual triumphs over death.

Lars Vogt
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Conductor Lars Vogt isn’t a Baroque orchestral specialist (so much so that he had to be reminded to acknowledge the continuo section for applause), but as we saw earlier this year in his performance of the Goldberg Variations he has a clear affinity for Bach’s music, and thinks carefully about what he wants to say. Although there were a couple of slightly sticky moments at the beginnings of movements, Royal Northern Sinfonia and their chorus know what they’re doing, leaving Vogt to paint in the colours, and he shaped a carefully arched narrative that balanced outward joy in the first and sixth canatas with quiet radiance in the inner two.

Most of the chorus singing in the Christmas Oratorio is chorales, and Vogt kept these very simple and unfussy. The chorale of Cantata 2, “Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht” glowed with light, and “Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier”  in the last cantata was sung with a generous humility. The choir were less consistent in the oratorio’s big choruses; the opening “Jauchzet, frohlocket” began punchily but tailed off a bit in the middle, and although they blended well, it was hard to hear the individual parts, but looking at the names in the programme, the sopranos and altos were clearly slightly low on numbers. The sopranos’ top notes in “ Herrscher des Himmels” at the beginning and end of Cantata 3 came ringing beautifully through the texture and the whole choir made a glorious sound as they delivered the angels’ message of peace and goodwill in Canata 2.

A strong line-up of soloists delivered some very enjoyable arias, whilst Evangelist David Webb wove a characterful narrative. His recitatives led the atmosphere of stillness and awe that pervaded the inner two cantatas, and he and the continuo players created a magical glow around every reference to Mary. Soprano Anna Devin only had a couple of arias but they were a joy to hear, particularly her engaging “Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen”, which was clean and bright. In the magnificent bass aria “Großer Herr und starker König”, David Soar projected power and majesty against Richard Martin’s effervescent trumpet solo, but turned into quite a different king for Herod’s brief appearance in Cantata 6, where his smooth singing showed exactly what the two-faced Herod was up to in his dealings with the Magi.

The alto undoubtedly gets the best of Christmas Oratorio arias, with the expressivity of Bach’s melodies heightened by the accompanying instrumental solos. William Towers has a very pure counter-tenor voice, particularly in his top register, but there was plenty of power behind the voice too, so that it was muscular and well-supported. His first aria, “Bereite dich, Zion” was full of love, with the dance rhythm enhanced by Sophie Luecke’s agile double-bass solo. In “Schließe, mein Herze”, leader Bradley Creswick and Towers created a moment of ethereal beauty that expressed Mary’s wonder at what her son will achieve.

The real stars of the Christmas Oratorio are not the singers but the oboes, flutes and trumpets. Bach uses the instrumental solos to great effect, adding eloquent comment to the vocal lines. I enjoyed the long, flowing legato lines of oboists Steven Hudson and Michael O‘Donnell; they were particularly effective when set against the very simple soprano chorale singing in “Er ist auf Erden kommen arm” and in the quiet energy that they projected during the final Evangelist recitative. Vogt drew a tender, gentle lullaby out of the winds for the Sinfonia that opens Cantata 2, setting the peaceful mood for those two inner sections. The three Royal Northern Sinfonia trumpeters, Richard Martin, Marion Craig and David Hooper were, as ever, outstanding, adding sprinkles of Christmas magic over the most joyful parts of the Oratorio, but always with delicacy and style, especially in the opening chorus, and in the very quiet parts of “Großer Herr”.

Bach ends the Christmas Oratorio by reminding us of why Jesus was born, using the Passion Chorale tune that dominates the St Matthew Passion, but surrounding it with a triumphant blaze of trumpets. Lars Vogt, the chorus and orchestra together danced through this last chorus to leave us in no doubt about the joyful message of Christmas.