In brief introductory remarks, founder and director of Ludus Baroque Richard Neville-Towle outlined three significant features of the performance. The indicated presence of a crib signified that this was to be a devotional performance, and being able to make sense of this is possibly what divides the faithful from the faithless. A move from the home turf of the Canongate Kirk to the larger acoustic of the Queen’s Hall had been undertaken to highlight increased interplay between orchestra and singers. The need for this had come to light following research which led Neville-Towle to surmise that Bach may have had in mind a polychoral performance.

Courtesy of Ludus Baroque
Courtesy of Ludus Baroque

The Chorus of Saints in Heaven, including Mary and the evangelists St Luke and St Matthew, were represented by four soloists. The Chorus were Angels in Heaven. A smaller Chorus of Mortals, extracted from the main chorus, were generally assigned chorales. One result of this interpretation was an enriched dynamic palate, resulting in tutti sections which were electrifying. Bach’s varying orchestral forces across the Christmas Oratorio’s six cantatas also contributed greatly to the varied soundworld. The opening “Jauchzet, frohlocket”, where we were encouraged by heaven to “rejoice and exalt”, was leant a bright dynamism by timpani and three trumpets. The contrastingly pastoral “Sinfonia” which open the second cantata reflected more the movement’s portrayal of angels and shepherds. On a simple level it could be perceived that the appearance of trumpets, in the first, third and sixth cantatas, registered intended joy. Unfortunately, some gremlins in the brass corner meant that these very exposed joyous moments were occasionally tinged with apprehension.

The chorus, hand-picked by chorusmaster Will Dawes from leading early music consorts such as The Sixteen and the Monteverdi Choir, were in top form and appeared really to be enjoying the experience. One delicate touch, in the final Epiphany, involved the chorale “Ich steh’ an deiner Krippen hier” (“I stand here by your crib”) being sung by only three chorus members: the countertenor, tenor and bass, representing the Three Kings.

In terms of sheer musical stamina, one had to admire the near-constant continuo contributions of Jan Waterfield (chamber organ) and Alison McGillivray (cello), the former of whom played through this three-hour epic standing. Also very active, and extremely nimble in “Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben” (“Living for Thy Exaltation”), was bass player Tim Amherst.

I very much admired Neville-Towle’s “hands-off” approach to conducting. In the interest of natural musicality, he left those involved in obbligato arias to look after their own phrasing and ensemble. Even in fuller sections there seemed little need to indicate this type of music’s reliable pulse to players of this calibre; the approach was very minimal, the most urgent moves being those intended to encourage enjambment between successive lines of text. The director’s high regard for orchestra leader Oliver Webber was evident in the programme notes. However, this could have been deduced by the amount of free rein that he was given in leadership. This, along with his sensitive playing, was most evident in the obbligato aria “Ach, wann wird die Zeit erscheinen?” (“When will the glorious time befall?”).

The four vocal soloists were excellent. Tenor Ed Lyon, in addition to covering the role of two evangelists, played the part of St Christian in a very touching accompanied recitative entitled “So geht! Genug, mein Schatz geht nichtvon hier” (“Go then! My love will remain here”).

Soprano Katherine Manley and baritone William Berger were impressive not only in their respective solos but especially in duo. For me, the most moving such example was “Immanuel, o süßes Wort” (“Immanuel! O sweetest Word!”), in which the chorale words of St Anna are woven into a prayer of St Simeon.

Man of the match, in the role of Mary and St Garbriel, was countertenor Tim Mead. Beauty of sound and phrasing had me transfixed, particularly in “Schlafe, mein Liebster, geniesse der Ruh” (“Sleep, Beloved, quietly resting”) which, in the circumstances, struck me as a kind of hymn to parenting.

I’d like here to sing the praises of Peter Smaill, whose translation of this sizeable, anonymous text graced the programmes held religiously in many hands. His craft sprung to mind in the chorale “Ich will dich mit Fleiß bewahren” (“Lord, for all that I have striven”) on account of its syllable count of 8/3/3/6, which certainly wrong-footed this listener. His inclination to aim for poetic sense in English, rather than to abide by the German rhythm, was a winning touch.

Perhaps in the Canongate Kirk the audience would have seemed sizeable. Despite full central stalls, the Queen’s Hall’s side pews felt underpopulated. However, this audience punched well above their weight in response. There was sustained cheering and many in the gallery were on their feet.

***11