REVIEW BY Melvyn Walmsley
J S Bach Christmas Oratorio & Carols for Audience, Burgess Hill Choral Society & Sussex Bach Players, St Andrew’s Church, Burgess Hill, Saturday, December 7, 2019
Spread over 13 days from Christmas to New Year 1734-5 the task of quickly preparing, then presenting six cantatas in his Leipzig churches tested Bach’s energy and imagination. It even involved re-packaging some of his Passion scores. However, this gave them the dramatic intensity of oratorio, so the Christmas story came alive in a joyful celebration of the Incarnation.
Conductor Michael Wood’s Advent 2019 challenge demanded similar ingenuity. How to capture that energetic joy, engage the capacity audience at St Andrew’s Church, Burgess Hill in carols after each cantata, fit in an interval and send everyone home “with a festive glow” – all in one evening?
Positive and genial, he inspired the well-rehearsed and on-form Burgess Hill Choral Society and Richard Sutcliffe’s Sussex Bach Players, and they sang and played with infectious exuberance. Bach’s score demands, and received, excellent diction and smooth, slick transitions from sopranos to tenors to altos to basses to the whole chorus. Chorus and instrumentalists were as one throughout. Dance rhythms and forward momentum - both at the heart of Bach’s music - suffused their whole-hearted, vibrant performance.
The chorus and players’ core contributions were assisted by a fine English text and technically accomplished tenor and mezzo soprano soloists with operatic backgrounds and youthful commitment. Guy Withers and Anne-Sofie Sǿby Jensen’s recitatives and arias animated the story and our reflections on it with a warmth and optimism echoed by chorus and players.
The cuts were well hidden. Even the final chorale seamlessly became O Come all ye Faithful with all present totally involved. Bach would have warmly approved. So would Fiona Fawssett, to whom this concert was rightly dedicated, a few days after her memorial service, to mark her treasured legacy of tireless, outstanding service to Mid Sussex music making for well over 60 inspiring years.