Three weeks from now, on Sunday December 22, Stephen Layton will conduct what has become one of the signal concerts in the seasonal calendar at St John’s, Smith Square in London—a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. This two-CD set, featuring the same choir, orchestra and (with one exception) soloists, was recorded in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, in January this year, within the season of Epiphany and only weeks after the St John’s performance for Christmas 2012. The fact that the music seems to course through the very veins of the singers and players, not to mention Layton himself, is one of the qualities that make this Christmas Oratorio such a telling, affecting and inspiring experience, judiciously balancing jubilation, devotion and contemplation.
The six cantatas that constitute the oratorio, while originally intended for performance on different days of the Christmas and Epiphany season, form an organic entity, emphasised by the celebratory nature of the opening chorus, 'Jauchzet, frohlocket', of the first cantata and the closing chorale, 'Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen', of the sixth. In between, Layton has supreme command of the contrasts between moments of reflection and the narrative thread, sustained here by the fluency and immediacy of James Gilchrist’s delivery as the Evangelist. The Trinity College Choir surmounts the challenges of articulation and expressive variety with finely honed character, rich in consonantal colour. The OAE adds its own warmth and period piquancy to the spectrum, and the first-rate soloists are seamlessly woven in, Iestyn Davies giving a tender account of one of the oratorio’s famous numbers, 'Schlafe, mein Liebster', from the second cantata. All in all, this performance blends freshness of interpretation with maturity of insight.