Monteverdi Choir/ English Baroque Soloists/ Gardiner, Christ Church Spitalfields

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The Independent Culture

Over at Christ Church Spitalfields, as part of the annual Winter Festival, John Eliot Gardiner has been serialising Bach's Christmas Oratorio.

Actually Bach did so long before him, separating the cantatas within the larger work and performing them over several days. But Gardiner has added a motet and a Brandenburg Concerto to his twice-nightly Christmas fare, leaving appreciative congregations in no doubt as to the abiding joy and astonishing diversity of J.S. Bach's music.

His Monteverdi Choir are true specialists and with the Motet "Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden" ("Praise ye the Lord, all ye nations") they offered an object lesson in articulation with expressive purpose. The lightness and uplift of the counterpoint was so refreshing. Just the way these voices can ride rhythms, deflecting the weight of attack and subtly nuancing the dynamics, is a pleasure for anyone with an ounce of musicality to behold. Celestial cloud-hopping might be one way of describing the jubilant outer sections of this particular motet but with the words "For all that his grace and his truth have power over us for evermore" Bach's music and Gardiner's choir paused for reflection, the sound swelling through one glorious harmonic suspension to a moment or two of real spiritual contentment.

A pity, then, that we had to pause so long for a BBC platform rearrangement before the crisp, clean, dulcet tones of two recorders (Rachel Beckett and Catherine Latham) played musical tag with their string counterparts in the Fourth of Bach's Brandenburgs. Fugues can be fun, or so said this performance shrugging off the lachrymose sighs of the slow movement to revel in the toe-tapping and ever resourceful interplay of the finale. Kati Debretzeni's earthy first fiddle got stuck into the earnest passage work and bristling trills leaving inhibition at the vestry door.

But then there were shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night, and a chorus of oboes lending their rustic timbre to a gently bucolic pastorale. At the heart of the Second Cantata of Bach's Christmas Oratorio is the Nativity, and at the heart of the Nativity is the Angel's heaven-sent lullaby over the manger. Clare Wilkinson sang this with humbling simplicity accentuating the miraculous sustaining notes that fall like benedictions over the Virgin's boy child. Bach nurtures this tender aria two-fold to maximise the impact of the ensuing song of praise where Gardiner's "heavenly host" encircled the English Baroque Soloists to belie their small numbers in resounding counterpoint.