AMPLE REWARDS FOR CONCERT’S FULL AND ENTHUSIASTIC AUDIENCE
With tickets at £20, and the players of Southern Pro Musica engaged for the evening, Froxfield choir’s Christmas Oratorio raised high expectations; and there were many moments when the performance, directed by the choir’s new conductor, Richard McVeigh, gave ample rewards to a full and enthusiastic audience.
Although it shares many features with Bach’s great Easter passions – the story-telling Evangelist, elaborate choruses, reflective solos and hymn-like chorales – the Christmas oratorio is not a single narrative work but a collection of six joyous seasonal cantatas, originally performed on different days during the festive period.
Four cantatas were chosen for this performance – three of them opening with a lively chorus in dancing triple time. Of these, the last was the most effective, with the theme striding magnificently from part to part through the choir. The chorus ‘Lord of Creation’ also had a fine spring in its step, but the opening chorus of the evening did not really settle down confidently until the repeat of its first section gave the singers a second chance to show their mettle.
The big chorus ‘Glory to God in the highest’ demonstrated the agility and confidence of the sopranos, who are by far the largest section of the choir. By comparison, the texture of the lower parts in this very complex movement sounded muddy.
The chorales are one of the delights of the work, and here we heard the full, rich tone of the choir, with a resounding peak to the triumphant ‘Break forth, O glorious morning light’. In all the choral movements, full as they are of words expressing joy and exaltation, there was scope for more energetic diction, and happier faces among the singers!
Among the four well-matched young soloists, tenor Christopher Fitzgerald-Lombard, as Evangelist, demonstrated a beautiful light tone and flexibility of voice, though he was stretched by the florid solo writing of ‘Happy shepherds’. Bass Alexandre Garziglia, who sensibly shed the spectacles that troubled him during his first aria, is blessed with a magnificent voice, if not yet quite with the sinister authority of King Herod.
In the gentle alto arias Freya Jacklin impressed with a beautiful line and tone, and sensitivity to the words, though her diction could have been clearer. Soprano Rebekah Abbott showed the power and range of her voice but seemed less at home than she was at the choir’s summer concert. The work is not kind to the soprano, making her wait more than half an hour before her first, brief appearance as an angel. Later, there was an attractive rapport between the soloists in the soprano and bass duet, but the movement never quite found a convincing balance in its tempo and phrasing.
Southern Pro Musica brought grace and energy to the work, adding brilliance with some superb trumpet solos and a pastoral note with the hard-worked quartet of oboists. The strings accompanied the choruses with stylish lightness and articulation, and even in the dry acoustic of the Festival Hall sounded rich and expressive in the well-known ‘Pastoral Symphony’. Cello and organ provided an assured continuo, and there were delightful colours in the accompanied recitatives, though these did not always feel securely coordinated.
Aware of the need for well-presented accessories, the choir offered a stylishly designed and informative programme including the full text (not always in the version that was sung) but no orchestra list or credit for additional help such as lighting and bar management.