(reviewed by David Huntington)
On Saturday evening 3 December we were given a splendid concert of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio by the Hexham Orpheus Choir.
Whilst the individual 6 sections would have been sung on the appropriate days of Christmas in Leipzig where Bach was Director of Music – parts 1 to 4 in Thomaskirche in 1734, and 5 to 6 in Nicolaikirche in 1735, we heard all but part 4 in the concert on Saturday. Sections 1 to 3 tell the familiar Nativity story from St. Luke’s gospel including the arrival, adoration, and departure of the shepherds. Parts 5 and 6 tell the story from St. Matthew’s gospel of the Wise Men and Herod.
After the first chorus “Come now with gladness and welcome the morrow, loudly proclaim that your Saviour is born”, the evangelist, tenor Stephen Chambers, begins to tell the Nativity story. Stephen’s clarity of words and agility of voice ensured our interest as the story came to life. Interspersed in the story between the Chorales, are Arias for the individual soloists. The work progressively introduced alto soloist Sue Davis with “Prepare yourself Zion”, and then soprano Jessica Holmes (who sang earlier this year with the Orpheus Choir in Haydn’s Nelson Mass), and baritone Philip Smith (who has sung several times in the Hexham Abbey Festival). A welcome return to them all. In the bass aria “Mighty Lord and King of glory” Philip showed in his singing the authority and clarity of diction, ably supported with excellent trumpet playing.
Part 2 starts with a Sinfonia (as in Handel’s Messiah), and then the shepherds, after the Chorale “Break forth, O glorious morning light” were visited by the angel and make their way to Bethlehem where Jesus has been born, and the alto aria “Slumber beloved” was tenderly sung by alto Emma Banks supported with superb oboe d’amore played by Philip Cull. The chorus “Glory to God” presents a real challenge with exhilerating runs which were generally well managed.
Part 3 starts with “Lord of Creation” and with the shepherds almost at the manger we heard the lovely duet with soprano and bass, again with oboe d’amore “Lord of mercy and compassion”. Emma Banks then sang, with wonderful violin solo played by orchestra leader Julia Bolton, “Keep, O my spirit this blessing and wonder”, and at the end of part 3 the shepherds return home “glorifying and praising God”.
Part 5 for the Sunday after New Year tells of the Wise Men from the East coming to Jerusalem and enquiring where the new-born child would be. The terzetto for soprano, alto and tenor, with violin solo “Ah, when shall we see salvation?” was beautifully performed.
Part 6 at the Festival of the Epiphany starts with the chorus “Lord, when the foe is howling mad”, which had some instability (maybe appropriately), but after the soprano aria and the Wise Men opening their gifts, the chorus sang the next chorale from memory – the sound was wonderful, and the words fully clear. In conclusion after the Wise Men have returned the final chorus “Now vengeance has been taken” brings the work to a close.
The speed of this last chorus was perhaps just a little too fast for the clarity of trumpets, but overall, this was an excellent performance of this challenging work by the Orpheus choir with conductor Glenn Davis. All parties are to be congratulated on sharing with the large audience the Christmas story.