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A Glorious Christmas Gift

Hamer Hall, Melbourne Arts Centre
12/03/2017 -  December 4 (Melbourne), 6 (Brisbane), 8 (Canberra), 10 (Sydney) 2017
Johann Sebastian Bach: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248
Nicholas Mulroy (Evangelist)
The Choir of London, The Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (Conductor & Violin)

N. Mulroy (© Courtesy ACO)

Composed in 1733-34 Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a massive work in every sense. It was originally intended to be sung in six parts over consecutive celebratory services and was first presented in 1734-35. Given the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s penchant for accepting a challenge, it should come as no surprise that they have again launched what they describe as “the quintessential Christmas choral extravaganza”. At three and a half hours (allowing for an extended interval), this is no light-weight concert. It demands an intense commitment from instrumentalists and singers alike, and commands an audience attention of huge proportions to feel the full extent of the musical argument. There is no lulling into hazy musical torpor here. This is an elating and exhilarating ride through extended tonal and colouration shifts, driven forward by the strong story-telling element proposed through the character of the Evangelist. There are many solo parts but at its heart, this is a choral work which is festive, celebratory and uplifting through its intensity.

Newly returned from their European tour during which the band were described as “one of the wonders of the musical world” playing with “astounding finesse”, Richard Tognetti has expanded the Australian Chamber Orchestra for this final round of performance of the 2017 season. Included are guest instrumentalists and principals from Sydney, Berlin, New York and London augmenting the luxurious strings with period oboes, horns, timpani, flutes and trumpets. The overall impact is enormous; the sheer volume of sound is massively multiplied, the festive blaze of trumpet and timpani adds a colour reserved for these big occasions, and yet, the delicacy of the strings – so many of them actual period instruments – is maintained, even enhanced by the participation of the larger band. It’s not hard to be impressed, especially when the outstanding contributions of Xenia Löffler on Oboe d’amore, Neil Brough on Trumpet and Neal Peres da Costa on Chamber Organ are measured.

At any time this orchestra is an ensemble of outstanding artists each of whom could be called upon to deliver virtuoso turns. Augmented in this way, it heightens the intensity of the sound they produce and yet retains the fragile elegance which is their signature. It is entirely logical then that another troupe of similar composition in The Choir of London should join forces with the ACO. Richard Tognetti knows this choir well through his extended residency at London’s Barbican Centre. They first joined the ACO for the original performances of this Bach Oratorio in 2013 when the concerts were hailed as the stand-out event of the season.

If the ACO are a band of virtuosi, The Choir of London is a group of high accomplished soloists. Together, they achieve a glorious unity of sound: each of the four choral parts clearly audible while coming together into a sublime melange evoking strength and vigour through subtle shifts in vocal colour. Any choir would be thankful; to have a brilliant soloist but this choir has an abundance of them. All of the men sang strong solos and most of the women too. Notable among the men were George Humphries’ authoritative Bass and Gwilym Bowen’s clarion Tenor. Many of the women also made remarkable appearances, particularly Mary Bevan whose radiant Soprano ascended throughout the final Cantata and Lotte Betts-Dean’s gorgeous rich Alto which so beautifully pledged faith in the Fifth Cantata.

Inevitably, the success of the performance must be measured by the effectiveness of the Evangelist sung again by Nicholas Mulroy who returns to reprise his much praised role with the ACO from 2013. His diction is superb, rendering every impeccable syllable with confidence and clarity of purpose. He is the chief story-teller and it is his lilting Recitativo which drive the progress of the work. Mr. Mulroy is reportedly very much in-demand for this part. His performance in Melbourne left no doubt that he is an authority whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the nuances and tonal shifts in this music render a most distinguished performance.

The full impact of the piece is never more evident than in the final Chorale “Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen”. Bach concludes it as he began three hours or six commemorative services or fourteen days ago (depending on how you see it) in full festive and celebratory mode. It is a triumphant work full of joy and cheerfulness. In this final chorale, the full orchestra, replete with timpani, trumpets, organ and woodwinds, joined by the soaring choir in full flight, radiated sumptuous Festive Season cheer.

Gregory Pritchard



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