The Christmas Oratorio is an odd work to perform in concert, but it makes a welcome change from the obligatory annual Messiah. Bach’s piece contains six separate cantatas that tell the traditional Nativity narrative, all subsumed under the broader theme. But this is not the St Matthew Passion with added shepherds and Magi, even though many of the chorale settings from the Passions find their way into the Oratorio. These six cantatas were designed to be heard spread over the period between Christmas and Epiphany. Additionally, not all of the Oratorio is original music, as Bach reworked several of his secular cantatas from 1733–4 for the Christmas performances of 1734–5.

Philippe Herreweghe © Mirjam Devriendt
Philippe Herreweghe
© Mirjam Devriendt

How, then, to perform this work in a single evening’s concert? The entire Oratorio comes close to three hours of music, with similar forms repeated back to back. Wisely for this performance with the Collegium Vocale Gent, conductor Philippe Herreweghe chose only four of the six cantatas: the first three, narrating the story from the birth of Jesus to the adoration of the shepherds, and the last, which concludes with the Magi and Herod. The interval came in the middle, which somewhat interrupted the flow of the shepherds’ story, but that was perfectly understandable.

Of the historically-informed Bach conductors, Herreweghe has always been one of the more ethereal, focusing less on technique and more on the emotions and (properly) the faith behind the music. That said, there were of course innovations here. Alice Tully is a small hall, but there were just six violins accompanying a choir of sixteen, which included the soloists. Woodwinds were arrayed to either side, and the three trumpeters were thoroughly incorporated within the overall sound picture (sometimes too much so, neutering their celebratory quality). There was a fulsome tone from orchestra and choir alike, the smoothness of the latter especially helped by having three countertenors among the four altos. In arias there was some gorgeous solo playing, particularly from flautist Patrick Beuckels in the second cantata, and oboist Marcel Ponseele in the first and third. Continuo players are rarely noted in reviews, but the recitative contributions of Ageet Zweistra, Miriam Shalinsky, and Maude Gratton were precise, and varied, drawing attention to harmonic shifts and at times wonderfully telling.

Sadly, the conducting and singing here was mixed. Herreweghe brought his usual eye for details and unhurried approach to tempi, but the concert up to the sixth cantata was of curiously low-wattage. Some of Bach’s more unusual forms seemed more disjointed than might have been possible, particularly in the chorale and recitative duet for sopano and bass, “Er ist auf Erden kommen arm”. There were high points, especially the opening pastoral sinfonia to the second cantata – one could almost smell the shepherds’ fields – and supporting soprano Dorothee Mields in the final cantata’s “Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen”. In general, though, this remained earthbound.

Young English tenor Thomas Hobbs was the star of our solo quartet. He seems a natural narrator, with a way with words that tells the story with nuance and colour without drawing attention to anything unnecessarily. He doubtless makes a fine Evangelist in the Passions, yet his arias were also highlights here. “Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet” combined a comforting mid-range with accurate runs and trills, whilst the final aria of the concert, “Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schrecken” displayed his fine attention to both text and music alike. Countertenor Damien Guillon started shakily in his early aria “Bereite dich, Zion”, but after halftime applause he seemed to grow in confidence for a much more convincing “Ja, ja, mein Herz soll es bewahren”. Bass Peter Kooij was slightly out of sorts, but combined well with Mields for their long duet “Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen”. Mields herself had little to do until her one solo aria, and she took great pleasure in her invocation of the Lord’s power over Herod’s machinations. She, like Hobbs, is certainly one to watch for the future of Baroque singing. The Collegium Vocale choir were on fine form throughout, although a few more contributors would have been welcome to give greater power in choruses.