Those for whom the six richly ornate cantatas comprising Bach's Christmas Oratorio are a little too much of a good thing at a single sitting should surely cleave to the more succinct Christmas Story by his greatest German predecessor, Heinrich Schütz (1586-1672).
Composed towards the end of a long and productive career, this sets the biblical account in artfully simple recitative for a tenor Evangelist, buttressed by lively choruses and interspersed by a series of enchanting, colour-coded intermedia: dancing viols for the Angel, sprightly flutes for the Shepherds, puttering bassoon for the Wise Men, sacerdotal sackbuts for the High Priests, stentorian trumpets for Herod. And the entire narrative is dispatched in a mere 38 minutes.
Short enough, indeed, for Paul McCreesh's magnificent Gabrieli Consort & Players to give it twice in one evening as part of the Winter Festival in Christ Church Spitalfields, together with Schütz's perfumed "sacred concerto", "O bone Jesu, fili Marie", and grandly polychoral Latin Magnificat, in a short but enjoyable programme.
Set in lively motion by McCreesh, the Christmas Story was unfolded with an exquisite interplay of poise and flexibility by the young Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu, handling Schutz's occasional excursions into expressionism with chaste plangency. But the "find" of the programme, as McCreesh suggested in a brief welcome to the audience, was "O bone Jesu", a richly harmonised sequence of solos and ensemble of an almost erotic yearning.
For the Magnificat, McCreesh exploited the reopened galleries of the restored Christ Church, bouncing Schutz's textures between three groups of performers. He also revived the 17th century practice of interspersing carols into sacred works. But, charming though it was to hear such old favourites as "In Dulce Jubilo" freshly sung, this rather defused the striking shifts of tempo and texture in what is a dramatically paced structure. Still, it hardly mitigated a hugely enjoyable hour with a marvellous composer.
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