Christmas Oratorio ACO and the London Choir review (Opera House, Sydney)

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Handel’s Messiah has the exclusive franchise on Christmas classical. So it’s ‘Praise the Lord!’ for the ACO’s diversion with Bach’s massive Christmas Oratorio, a suite of six cantatas typically spread over six (or fourteen, depending who you believe) days, but for our gluttonous, sybaritic, Sydneyside edification, presented over three-and-a-half hours (with merciful dinner break), in the grandiose Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, with the 19-strong (and I do mean strong) London Choir.
Richard Tognetti has always admired, but never before played this work. It started life as an ostensibly secular suite, but Bach being the resourceful renaissance musician he was rejigged it as liturgical, following a previous incarnation as a collection of tributes to royals. They certainly show no signs of wear or tear, even now. In fact, these six cantatas sound as fresh as the first chirp of a cicada in summer. Even Mr T confesses to Christmas cynicism, but is nonetheless moved by this music, which honours the festival.
Yeah, I know. Where’s Handel’s Messiah? Isn’t that the classical Christmas fare? You’d have to be nuts to stage nigh-on four hours of music, sung in German, instead, wouldn’t you? Well, not if you’re the ACO, which has a degree of intestinal fortitude only a carrot-gorging reindeer can rival. Actually, it’s not enough to do it in German. You want to use period instruments, too. Maybe it’s Tognetti’s penchant for surfing that endows him with this appetite for risk.
Then again, with such ravishing music these risks are minimised. It seems extraordinary that after  it premiered around 1734, Bach’s CO didn’t get another outing for 120 years. Bach in the day (forgive me), churchgoers didn’t sit in silent contemplation. They sang along. Like many classical composers Bach wasn’t averse to drawing on folk tunes. So happily you don’t have to go to church, or even be a Christian, to revel in this musical feast which is one of the finest examples of ‘parody’ music. This doesn’t mean Bach was sending himself or anyone else up: originally, the term referred purely to reuse, regardless of intention.
Our story begins (as you might expect of a Christmas pageant) with the birth of Jesus, a tale intended to be told and celebrated on Christmas day. Given that context, it explodes with a celebratory fanfare of trumpets and drums, including an introductory timpani solo, by Brian Nixon. The instrumentation and orchestration is innovative and ear-catching: the opening interplay between organ and percussion, followed in sublime procession by brass and strings and, then, the ‘coro’, jubilantly proclaiming ‘jauchzet!’. Both orchestra and choir sounded clear-voiced and confident.
The London Choir is no ordinary choir. It’s a loose, or not-so-loose, collective of distinguished musicians of all kinds who collaborate, often for charitable purposes. Michael Stevens was seconded to congregate the choir and he has succeeded in assembling one worthy of a stocking stuffed with the best of British. Foremost among these is the powerful, dulcet tenor of ‘The Evangelist’, better-known to his friends and family as Nicholas Mulroy. We shouldn’t be surprised by the quality of his performance, given he’s ‘the most sought-after Evangelist of his generation’.
Of course, if a choir had one outstanding soloist, it would be edifying. But this choir has a dozen. Among them are soprano Sophie Bevan who brings a fragile wistfulness as befits Bach’s more mournful moments. The respective gifts of any of the choir’s basses, tenors, altos or sopranos exceed all expectation. Indeed, this choir is an extravagantly good fit with the ACO. Just as ACO soloists and principal chairs exude individuality in their playing, these singers, even within the same vocal range, paint from a diverse palette adding immensely to the character and drama of the work.
Instrumentally, the period instruments (or replicas) add spice, too. The rusticated oboe da caccia has no peer, sonically; the horns ring out with a more muted homage to the pastoral and the elongated baroque trumpets have an irresistible sheen. Meanwhile, while it mightn’t exactly emerge as the most heroic or attention-getting instrument in the work, I was impressed by the chamber organ of Neal Peres Da Costa, who doesn’t really get a moment’s respite, contributing to a basso continuo of Tognetti’s design, along with double bass, cellos and bassoon. This oratorio just wouldn’t be the same without it and I must reserve some further applause for RT’s judgment here.
[box]This concert will be performed at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on Thursday, December 19 at 6.30pm.[/box]

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