Masaaki Suzuki is probably best known for his pioneering work as founder-conductor of the Bach Collegium Japan, though this concert reunited him with the Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment for the first instalment of a two-part performance, given complete over successive nights, of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Some will doubtless cavil at the thought of splitting the oratorio in two, but it should be remembered that though scholars consider it a unified musical statement, it consists of six cantatas intended for liturgical use on separate days between Christmas and Epiphany. Its length also means that complete outings on a single evening remain comparatively rare, in the UK at any rate, where many interpreters omit cantatas IV and V altogether.
Suzuki’s Bach has sometimes been described as sober and reined in, though here there was tangible elation as well as contemplation and control, and much of it was simply breathtaking. The great opening chorus, joyously heralding the incarnation that will redeem mankind, seemed to dance into life, the mix of exactitude and exaltation wonderfully judged, the playing thrilling in its precision and elan. There was some wonderful instrumental detail later on, with poised, elegant obbligatos and a fine quartet of oboes for the shepherds. The choir, meanwhile, was outstanding throughout. Choruses were rich in detail, the chorales direct and assertive, like strong statements of faith. Suzuki prefaced Cantata III with Singet dem Herrn ein Neues Lied, a motet setting Psalm 96 for double choir, its complex polyphony bracingly clear.
The soloists were part of the choir, meanwhile, walking to the front for their arias and recitatives. Tenor and countertenor were brothers Guy and Hugh Cutting. Guy made a fine Evangelist, his narrative clear and forthright. Later, in his aria, his coloratura proved fluently beautiful. Hugh, warm of tone (this is a really lovely voice), did wonderful things with Schlafe, Mein Liebster and Schliesse, Mein Herz, die Seliger Wunder. Florian Störtz was the fervent bass. The soprano doesn’t really come into her own until the work’s second half, though Jessica Cale sang with exquisite poise and admirable brightness of tone.
• Part II of the Christmas Oratorio is at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on 3 December