Bach for Christmas

Clare choir's performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was a major undertaking - and seriously impressive

The famous Oxbridge college choirs exist in (usually friendly) competition and are territorial. Christ Church sings in Christ Church, King’s in King’s, Magdalen in Magdalen … and the varying acoustics of their chapels shape the sound they make.

But last week I heard Clare, one of the two outstanding mixed-voice choirs in Cambridge, sing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in Trinity chapel – because Clare’s is too small to house the Age of Enlightenment Orchestra, which accompanied, together with a meaningful audience. And hearing Clare in this more spacious acoustic was like liberating a houseplant from a little pot and seeing it flourish in a grand one. With sudden abundance.

The Christmas Oratorio is long – six separate cantatas written for liturgical performance over several days – and Clare followed standard practice when it’s done in a single concert, only doing the first three and the sixth. But it was still a major undertaking, and impressive.

Clare’s sound, nurtured in the dryness of its home turf, is resourceful, strong and warm. With more than 30 voices, it can feel slightly congested, but its young director, Graham Ross, is focused and likes agile tempi, so things don’t get heavy. And he certainly recruits good student singers.

Clare is a conspicuous nursery for serious musicians, and among the soloists here was a recent graduate, now on the concert circuit, the baritone Dominic Sedgwick. Solid, stable with a handsome sound, he’s going places. And deserves to be there.

One man’s character can be another’s self-indulgence: there’s a thin dividing line. And it was crossed with worrying frequency last week by the young Russian pianist Pavel Kolesnikov, playing in the intimate if smothering comfort of London’s Reform Club. In an age when there are plenty of good pianists who feel factory-produced, Kolesnikov is truly individual: eccentric, introspective, unafraid to tear a piece apart in the examination of its inner
life. Which makes him interesting but problematic.

I’m a fan, but even I was bothered by his ruminative and distracted treatment of three late Brahms Intermezzi in this programme, robbing them of motivation. And baroque works by the lesser-known of the two Couperins (uncle Louis as opposed to nephew François) were so packaged in romantic re-imagining it was perverse.

Though sometimes magical as well. Only an early Beethoven sonata, Opus 7, really satisfied – with a good effort at the slow movement that to my ear never quite makes sense. Even in the hands of masters. Something in Kolesnikov suggests that one day he will be a master too. He has the makings. But right now, some discipline and order wouldn’t be a bad thing.