CLASSICAL MUSIC / Stille nacht: Nicholas Williams reviews 'A German Christmas', a seasonal recital by the King's Consort at the restored Wigmore Hall

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The title - 'A German Christmas' - suggested something dry and scholarly, or schmaltzy and syrup- sweet. In the event, this recital by the King's Consort at the restored Wigmore Hall on Tuesday turned out to be neither. The emphasis was on music for Epiphany, with two Bach cantatas written for the festival serving as a reminder of the wonderful music in this still-neglected repertoire. But the evening also included sacred songs, concertos and other musical intrusions. The impression was of happy serendipity.

There was also the pleasure of the Consort itself, something of an institution, used to doing this sort of thing in its own way. James Bowman's rendition of Dietrich Buxtehude's remarkable Jesu meine Freud und Lust summed up this aspect of its work. The composer's only surviving work for solo alto and strings, it was brought to life by the singer's artistry and understanding. Bowman's voice retains striking colours and nuances. Even its lowest register, now perhaps its least forceful part, is still used to superb effect. Dark tones were contrasted with long phrases of warm, golden arioso. Robert King's programme note speculated on Buxtehude's prestige had Bach not eclipsed him. On the evidence of this ravishing hymn, it would have been great indeed.

Bach's own voice had been heard right at the beginning, with the Sinfonia to Cantata BWV 42. In fact a work for Easter, its inclusion was justified purely by its musical richness. The style was unmistakably Bach's. But, as Stravinsky once remarked, the music of these cantatas goes beyond the merely characteristic to embrace an almost transcendental approach to the subtleties of musical language.

And the truth was there for all to hear in Cantata BWV 81, Jesus schlaft, was soll ich hoffen, intended for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, and Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen, Part 5 of the Christmas Oratorio. Terse, economical, and essentially dramatic in their dynamic resolution of inner tensions, both works benefited from performance by solo voices highlighting pellucid textural detail. The chorales in particular had a radiance that came from hearing every line of the counterpoint moving infallibly yet unpredictably to its goal. The Christmas Oratorio was especially full of powerful effects, from an angular oboe d'amore obbligato melody in Michael George's questioning bass aria, Erleucht' auch meine finstre Sinnen, to fearful string chords in Bowman's accompanied recitative, Warum wollt ihre erschrecken? The following solo trio, sung with tenor Charles Daniels and soprano Angela Kazimierczuk, was a silver chain of beautiful exchanges between voices and solo violin.

Much of the pleasure in a movement like this lies in discovering how Bach contradicts the comfortable Baroque assumptions of the opening. For Georg Philipp Telemann the opposite has traditionally been the case. Nevertheless, his Recorder Concerto in F was not without its surprises. A bouncy allegro kick- started in the usual way after a brief introduction, but proved to be full of rhythmic trip-wires and lurching modulations - all expertly handled by the soloist Catherine Latham. The other addition, Purcell's 'Let mine eyes run down with tears' from Lamentations, was a less satisfying stocking-filler. A dummy run for a recording, it suffered from balance problems between the boy trebles and other singers. Its mixture of solos and chorus required a more confident sense of ensemble, though it was redeemed by strong recitatives from Michael George and Charles Daniels.