In a crowded festive music calendar, one of the keenly anticipated concerts is Ludus Baroque, Edinburgh’s treasured early music ensemble performing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio telling the whole Christmas story as the congregations of Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche and Thomaskirche might have heard it in 1734-5. A change of venue to the more spacious Greyfriars Kirk and featuring the Marian Consort’s excellent singers in a rare complete performance of the six parts all promised to make this a memorable musical event. With players and singers arranged centrally, the audience gathered round on three sides providing an intimate experience.

Ludus Baroque © Andy Staples
Ludus Baroque
© Andy Staples

For many, once the Christmas pudding has been eaten and Boxing Day dawns, thoughts turn to booking a holiday or heading off to the sales, but for Bach’s Lutherans, Christmas marked the joyous end to solemn Advent and the beginning of the Twelve Days, his busy musicians and singers taking the story through to Epiphany. Bach borrowed some of his music celebrating royal events, but the work, originally performed across the two churches on six separate days stands up as a whole.

The singers were arranged into a main choir of eight, an additional choir of four and a red-shirted quartet of four mortals which gave conductor Richard Neville-Towle a diverse choral palette. The instruments were a wonderful Baroque collection, including two curly oboe da caccias, all producing a golden, mellow sound. Baroque speeds seem to be ever-increasing, but refreshingly, and perhaps going slightly against the trend, Neville-Towle generally took steady tempi which allowed the music space to breathe but sprightly enough to dance. While fully engaged in the bigger numbers, he took a completely hands-off approach to the obbligato arias, setting soloists and accompanists into astonishing freefall with complete freedom to set their own phrasing.

Standing to play, three Baroque trumpets and hard stick timpani blazed the Christmas day joy in a bright “Jauchzet, Frohlocket!”, a glorious blend from the eight singers with a bright soprano gloss, the richness increasing as more singers joined in the chorus of praise. As the Evangelist, Hugo Hymas related the Christmas story, his voice light and clear as a bell from the pulpit, descending later to sing Christian, the fearless believer at the devotional highpoint in the final part.

The sixteen strong Marian Consort under Rory McCleery’s direction were uniformly excellent, blending perfectly with many taking individual solos providing us with a rich variety of voices. Chorales were well balanced whether the Mortals alone or everyone together, hitting the climax perfectly in “Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht” and thrilling in “Wir singen dir in deinem Heer” as the pastoral shepherds, saints and angels unite. There were plenty of highlights and not a weak link from the many soloists, standout moments being the echo aria, “Flößt, mein Heiland” a delicate and seamless balance between soprano, her echo up in the organ loft and the oboe. I also enjoyed the two violins, leader Julia Bishop and principal second Ruth Slater one either side of the conductor urging the other on as they went at breakneck speed accompanying the tenor aria “Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben”. Oboes are integral to this work, and it was a joy to sit almost within touching distance of Baroque oboe specialist James Eastaway whose beautiful lyrical playing brought so much delight to this concert.

The ringing choral performance was well-matched by the players. The fullness of four oboes and the lovely pair of wooden flutes in the swaying pastorale in Part 2 was like shepherds calling in the hills, and in the more meditative part four, the naming of Jesus, the two corno da caccia players added a definitive timbre. Getting few breaks, the continuo was an energetic powerhouse, Jan Waterfield at the chamber organ on her feet for the entire performance was organically alive to cues from instrumental and sung soloists, the very thing that makes live performance exciting, vibrant and unpredictable.

Mention must be made of the extensive and excellent commentary by Bach expert Peter Smaill in the programme, giving us further insight into many details of the work including identification of the various saints, why harmonies sometimes change in the chorales and many liturgical and technical points of interest. We were learning more as we went along.

The ‘Passion Chorale’ bookends the cycle, the first quietly from the Mortals, but the final version shifts to D major with all singers raising the roof singing Christ’s praises with full trumpets and drums, providing an uplifting finish and context to the great sweep of this whole work, wonderful to hear complete.