Christmas joy

15 December 2019

St George’s Cathedral Consort, ‘Bach’s Christmas Oratorio’ ·
Perth Concert Hall, December 13 ·
Review by Sandra Bowdler ·

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Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a jewel box of sparkling musical items, so different in intent and execution from the majestic Passions, and so seasonally appropriate.

Originally written as six cantatas to be performed over six consecutive days starting with Christmas Day, it is now generally performed in one go, as it was here. Cantata No 4 for New Year’s Day (Feast of the Circumcision) was omitted from the performance, perhaps due to the need for horns, depriving us of some 25 minutes of music and particularly the solo echo-soprano air, ‘Flösst, mein Heiland’.  Otherwise, this was a beautifully presented and joyous occasion, under the baton of Joseph Nolan.

The Orchestra of St George played on modern instruments, but featured a number of Baroque specialists, notably concertmaster and violinist Paul Wright, and continuo group Stewart Smith (harpsichord), Noeleen Wright (cello) and Libby Browning (double bass). Highly significant contributions came from Yoram Levy on trumpet, Andrew Nicholson on flute and the very hard working Leanne Glover on sumptuous oboe.  There were a few tiny glitches, but overall the orchestral playing was tight and virtuosic. 

The St George’s Cathedral Consort under Nolan’s leadership has for some years now claimed the title of Perth’s finest choir, particularly in this repertoire, and they did not disappoint on this occasion, particularly in the soprano division. The choir’s usual discipline and accuracy was on display and also a palpable sense of exuberance, from the opening gaiety of ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket’ through the unbridled joy of ‘Ehre sei Gott’ to the lovely hushed finish of ‘Ich steh an deiner Krippen’.

Soprano soloist Sara Macliver sang with undiminished limpid purity. Photo supplied.

As to the soloists, this was the Australian Baroque dream team: Sara Macliver (soprano), Fiona Campbell (mezzo-soprano), Paul McMahon (tenor) and Andrew Foote (bass).  McMahon was the vocal glue holding the narrative together as the Evangelist, sounding a little dry at first, but soon bringing a lovely warm bloom to his shining tenor tone, evident in ‘Frohe Hirten’ with lyrical legato well supplemented by Nicholson’s filigree fluting. His substantial recitative was delivered with excellent diction (manifest across the vocalists) and understanding. Campbell’s smooth gleaming voice caressed the notes in ‘Bereite dich Zion’ and displayed perfectly judged phrasing and accurate melismas throughout, with a wonderful messa di voce on the first word of ‘Schlafe mein Liebster’. ‘Schliesse, mein Herze’, with violin solo from Wright and continuo, was a luminous highlight.

Andrew Foote also seemed to take a little time to warm up, but once he did his resonant bronze tone was a delight, especially with the trumpet in ‘Grosser Herr’, and in the positive conviction of ‘Erleucht auch’.

Without Cantata IV, the soprano doesn’t have a great deal to do, but Macliver sang the aria ‘Nur ein Wink’ with her customary effortless high notes and undiminished limpid purity. There were also some nice moments of blended voices, soprano and bass with oboes and organ, in ‘Herr, dein Mitleid’, and all the soloists and the violin in ‘Ach, wenn wird die Zeit’.  Altogether an evening to be cherished and long remembered.

Picture top: Joseph Nolan conducts the St George’s Cathedral Consort (orchestral musicians are not from this performance). Photo Rebecca Mansell.

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Author —
Sandra Bowdler

Sandra Bowdler is an archaeologist who has been writing about music for some twenty years, most recently for Opera magazine (UK), Bachtrack and Handel News. She is also the author of “Handel’s Operas in Australia, a performance history” Händel Jarhbuch (2017). Her favourite piece of playground equipment would be the picnic bench with smoked salmon sandwiches and champagne.

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