Colourful, inventive and utterly appealing, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is one of those works that listeners enjoy returning to again and again. All the more reason then, to have a good recording – such as this one. Stephen Layton brings his customary insight to the presentation of this series of six linked cantatas that were designed to be sung on various days of the Christmas season and gathers together an impressive group of performers that give the work a truly festive air.
Chief among the many attractive features of this performance is the incisive singing and diction of the Trinity College Cambridge Choir. Jauchzet, frohlocket, the opening chorus, is given a stately swagger that establishes a wonderfully joyful mood, but equally there is no loss of rhythmic momentum in such florid choral writing as Ehre sei Gott in the second cantata.
Layton’s soloists are all first rate. James Gilchrist is an excellent, honey-toned Evangelist who tells the story with clarity and conviction. Katherine Watson has a suitably angelic soprano voice, while countertenor Iestyn Davies (a Layton regular) brings warmth and musicianship to everything he sings. The rich, seasoned bass of Matthew Brook cuts an imposing figure in Grosser Herr, und starker König and is an aptly malevolent Herod.
In a work where the composer delighted in creating as rich and vivid an orchestral palette as possible, the role of the orchestra is crucial. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (under the leadership of the aptly named Margaret Faultless) provides admirable ensemble and sympathetic accompaniment. The various obbligato instruments (including violin, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, horns and trumpets) are all played with consummate skill. Here is a wonderful gift, not just for Christmas, but for years of rewarding listening.