Solomon’s Knot, Wigmore Hall's artists-in-residence this season, have returned to pack us all off to Christmas with the first four cantatas of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. It’s some of Bach’s most texturally ambitious music, painting the stories of the annunciation, journey, and adoration of the Shepherds with fruity quartets of oboes, loping natural horns, and – the ultimate sound of Christmas – celestial trumpets and drums (Rosemary Toll) in fanfare.

Solomon's Knot
© Richard Cannon

This ensemble have made collaboration and integrity their artistic watchwords, performing without conductor or scores. Amongst the eight singers there was a powerful musical bond: contrapuntal lines and entries graciously passed from one to another; new parts welcomed in with an inviting look; attentive, thoughtful listening when soloists stepped forward to narrate and describe. Likewise, singers and instrumentalists addressed the music to each other in arias, which made so much of it feel intimate, flexible and alive. The opening chorus was a belter: voices and drums snapping like a Christmas cracker. 

The chorales especially were a delight: words weighed and underlined or shaded to heighten moments of reflection or intensity of feeling, especially successful in the most reflective of the cantatas, the fourth, on the naming of Jesus. So too in the beautiful Passion chorale tune of the first part, “Wie soll ich dich empfangen”, landing with exquisite suffering on “verlangen” (longing.) Andrew Tortise and Alex Ashworth made fabulous narrators in the recitatives; the combined chorale and recitative sequences of Cantata IV were searching and pleading.

Neil Brough and Alex Ashworth
© Richard Cannon

Their collegiality was surely essential to the last-minute challenges posed at this time, losing two singers and the lead trumpet to sickness, requiring last-minute substitutions from Neil Brough, Helen Charlston and Hilary Cronin (eagle-eyed audience members would have spotted the latter singing Messiah in the same venue on Saturday with the Dunedin Consort). There were a few ensemble fluffs and a couple of fumbled entries; the only occasional problems were balance issues in some of the solos, where the vibrancy of the band threatened to overwhelm some of the lighter voices showcased. But there were moments of remarkable tenderness, equally: the timorous, fragile softness in the da capo return of “Schlafe, mein Liebster”. 

Instrumental playing cut quite a dash. The quartet of oboes and oboe di caccia had all the festive funk of a particularly high blue-veined cheese (one can see why these period sounds are such an acquired taste, but grown-ups should enjoy strong flavours.) Neil Brough’s trumpet solo in “Grosser Herr, O starker König” was fluid and lordly in equal measure.

Solomon's Knot
© Richard Cannon

You think natural trumpets are hard? Try natural horns, played mostly without blemish (perhaps that’s part of the entry fee in this kind of thing) by Anneke Scott and Anna Drysdale in Cantata IV. Their accompaniment to the very final chorale, “Jesu richte mein Beginnen”, was fulsome, pungent and extravagantly lyrical. The two violins of Kinga Ujszászi and Guy Button were thrillingly rambunctious in the contrapuntal duel of “Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben”, setting the scene for Ruairi Bowen’s energetic coloratura. 

“One more chorale before we go?” Jonathan Sells asked at the end. “The last-chance saloon,” he added. A prayerful, propitiatory chorale sang us into the night, “Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier” (I stand beside your manger here). These are (again) uncertain times for the arts. Who knows when we’ll come together again for this music of community and adulation? Let’s hope Solomon’s Knot is there when we do. 

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