Stephen Layton’s conducting of J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at St John’s Smith Square is a regular event on the London musical calendar but, as the opening fanfare rang out, any thoughts of deadening routine were banished in a blaze of jubilant energy: the performance was both invigorating and affecting. Bach’s extraordinary work is of six independent Cantatas for the Christmas season that he worked into a single narrative through thrifty recycling, music stuffed with subtle harmonic pleasures and contrapuntal hi-jinks.
The role of the Evangelist is vital in giving a descriptive spine as well as providing moments of detached reflection. Gwilym Bowen was on top form. His distinctive slightly reedy tenor suits the part perfectly and he was able to vary the acres of recitative nimbly. The arias were similarly well-delivered, rising to impassioned. Helen Charlston with her warm tone and empathetic personality was a natural fit for Mary, the Mother of Christ, and Katherine Watson was both spirited and suitably angelic with silvery tone. Matthew Brook may have been under pressure at the top of his register but he more than made up for that with forceful delivery and close attention to nuances of the text, and he made a briefly threatening Herod in Part Six.
Trinity College Choir was the star turn, sublime in the chorales. Diction was exemplary, the singing buoyant, bubbling, mettlesome and athletic, and responsive to the text. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was a joy, with many notable solos. The woodwind had a rustic quality, Katherina Spreckelsen’s oboe a particular delight, and the trumpets of David Blackadder, Phillip Bainbridge and Matthew Wells excelled.
Layton has a natural feeling for the dramatic pulse of the Christmas Oratorio. Bach’s music emerged as both dance-like and profound, perfectly natural and shaped with tenderness and refined spirituality. He gave a sense of celebration to the opening and, where necessary, added grandeur, as in the closing chorus. The warmth of the St John’s acoustic suited the work ideally.