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Every year, Handel’s Messiah used to signal the lead up to Christmas. The music turned up so predictably on cue that one snatch of the “Hallelujah” chorus was enough to put a scowl on the face of every Scrooge in Christendom and send him scurrying for cover.
Not so much today, however: period instrument conductors, who tend to dominate in the festive season, have started turning to Bach. The outstanding Christmas concert in London last year was the Monteverdi Choir doing Bach’s Magnificat at Cadogan Hall, while a year before the honour went to the Gabrieli Consort in the first half of the Christmas Oratorio at the Spitalfields Winter Festival.
This year’s star period performers were William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Barbican. Again the composer was Bach and the choice fell on the Christmas Oratorio, though Christie (unlike Paul McCreesh at Spitalfields) gave us all of it. Bach would have been surprised to hear the six cantatas that make up the oratorio on one evening. He intended them to be performed separately at different services through the Christmas period, though they encompass just enough variety to work as a single entity.
Christie’s approach to Bach is more laid back than rival Baroque specialists like McCreesh and John Eliot Gardiner. The atmosphere at Friday’s concert was thoughtful, quietly confident in the power of the music to speak for itself – it is easy to imagine that this is how Bach himself might have performed these cantatas – and yet it paled in comparison with those previous Bach evenings.
Nothing quite gripped the attention. The choir of Les Arts Florissants retains its attractive blend, but needs to be more incisive. The pale colours of the orchestra were too easily overpowered by perilous trumpets and booming timpani. Among Christie’s soloists the most interesting was the bass Markus Werba, while counter-tenor Tim Mead sounded beautiful but bland, soprano Marie Arnet brighter in a generalised way and tenor Marcel Beekman reedy and inexpressive. Overall, the effect was akin to when the Christmas tree lights go on the blink – the inspiration kept flicking on and off.
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