Substantially culled from a couple of earlier secular cantatas, Bach’s 1734 present to the churchgoers of Leipzig revels in such elevated recycling that it’s not impossible Bach had the Christmas Oratorio at the back of his mind from the very start. Stephen Layton unwraps it with all due festive pomp and circumstance. Part V’s ‘Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen’ bowls along with irrepressible ebullience, and the majestic opening of Part V is powered by a confident, striding energy. Yet some tempos play a little safe; Layton’s measured, well-manicured approach may exude a quiet authority, but Masaaki Suzuki’s lightness of touch and René Jacobs’s theatricality give a dash more seasonal sparkle.
Not that the superb quartet of soloists yields so much as a demisemiquaver to the competition. In a work incontestably smitten with the alto voice, lestyn Davies triumphs, dependably warm and expressively supple. Matthew Brook’s resplendent all-guns-blazing ‘Grosser Herr’ is gilded by David Blackadder’s nimble trumpet and, throughout, James Gilchrist’s relaxed and lyrical Evangelist maintains the narrative flow. And spurred on by Lisa Beznosiuk’s deliciously liquid flute, he also negotiates the agilities of ‘Frohe Hirten’ with silvery aplomb. Crisp choral singing and exquisite accompaniment, this is a decidedly welcome addition to anyone’s Christmas stocking.