MUSIC / Huddling up to the festive season: Stephen Johnson on Christmas with The Sixteen at St John's, Smith Square

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In 1952, Vaughan Williams wrote that he 'should like to see Mr Goossens confronted with one of those gross bagpipes which in Bach's time stood for an oboe.' Forty years later, the numbers prepared to try Bach with the modern equivalent are dwindling. Even given the fine singing of The Sixteen Choir and soloists, the unpolished, faintly pungent but strangely affecting sound of the baroque oboe had a way of grabbing the attention in movement after movement of the Christmas Oratorio, at least in the three sections played at Wednesday's concert. And when there was a strong, shapely solo voice intertwining with it - such as Mark Padmore's Evangelist - the results were exquisite: counterpoint as a living, sensual experience, not a cold abstraction.

It is also the only regular consituent of the baroque orchestra that doesn't tend to be slightly disappointing in the flesh - at least at first. St John's, Smith Square, may have been modernised, its fittings pared to a minimum, but essentially it must remain a 'period' acoustic. So why did The Sixteen Orchestra sound so small, so distant - the kind of sound you feel like huddling up to, like a diminutive brazier on a frosty night? Is it that we are spoiled by our powerfully projecting modern instruments, or could it be that most of us know the 'authentic' baroque sound from carefully engineered commercial recordings?

Against this, there was the big plus of Bach's music, and the fact that, however weakly the instruments may sometimes seem to project, when it comes to expression, articulation, and little touches of tonal and textural character, they may still be revelatory, even for those whose record collections are bursting with period Bach.

And the voices, inured to instrument-builders' whims, remain essentially the same. The Sixteen Choir (18 strong on this occasion) were on typical fine form - fluent and muscular in the dancing polyphonic numbers, sonorous and solid in the chorales. For the soloists, the relative restraint of the period instrument sound increases possibilities - an intimate piano is possible even with several strands of instrumental accompaniment in the background. Mark Padmore took advantage of this impressively, as to some extent did the bass Michael George. Soprano Lynda Russell's small, delicate sound, on the other hand, left doubts as to how she would have coped with the same number of equivalent modern instruments - especially in her lower register.

Reservations apart, there were fine things to take away and mull over in the memory. The trio 'Ach, went wird die Zeit erscheinen?' ('Oh, when will the time appear?') was delightful in all its stages; the violin's sprightly and expressive introduction, the soprano and tenor's anxious questions, and the alto's (Catherine Wyn-Rogers) reassurances - 'Hush, He is already here' - delivered with the smiling assurance of a favourite nanny.