Celebrating their 30th anniversary season, The Spectrum Singers, directed by John W. Ehrlich, presented a program at First Church Congregational, Cambridge, on Saturday, November 21, of Baroque Christmas choral repertoire featuring familiar though not over-performed works, some of which were sung in the first seasons of this ensemble.
The program proceeded chronologically, opening with Hodie Christus Natus Est by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, continuing with two pieces by Heinrich Schütz, Cantate Domino and Deutsches Magnificat, and finishing with J.S. Bach’s Magnificat and two cantatas from his Christmas Oratorio. The chorus sang the a cappella Sweelinck and Schütz pieces with vigor and joy. There was admirable attention to the give-and-take of the frequent imitative counterpoint, one choral part having its moment in the spotlight then graciously yielding to the next. Schütz’s German Magnificat, for which the chorus rearranged into double choir formation, was a particular pleasure. This final masterpiece, written when the composer was 86, proves that his genius remained undiminished virtually up to his death. The Spectrum Singers and Mr. Ehrlich gave a satisfying performance, dramatic and forceful on the one hand, tender and comforting on the other.
Although the next piece on the program used the same text (though in the original Latin rather than German), J.S. Bach’s setting is on a considerably larger scale, utilizing orchestral accompaniment and separating sections of text into choruses and solo arias. This is one of Bach’s most demanding choral pieces, and there was noticeably less eye-contact between chorus and conductor than in the previous pieces, leading regrettably to occasionally varying ideas of tempo between chorus and orchestra as well as within the orchestra itself. Ensemble issues aside, though, the orchestra played with beautiful tone and elegant Baroque style without fetishizing the latter. The trumpeters, who had to play in the stratosphere as is almost always true in Bach, deserve particular kudos for their clean, reliable playing. The soloists were a distinguished quartet. Kendra Colton, soprano, spun out a lovely legato line with elegant flourishes in her famous aria.
In two arias and a duet with tenor, mezzo soprano Thea Lobo used her limpidly beautiful tone as a means to an expressive end. The tenor, Charles Blandy, has a voice especially well suited to Bach and used it impressively in his aria. In addition to impressing with his agility, Mr. Blandy provided a lesson in the use of consonants to enhance the power of musical accents. The bass aria is notable for its large jumps from one vocal register to another; Donald Wilkinson is to be commended for making the quite awkward seem thoroughly natural. Generally speaking, in the choruses and a few of the arias I had to refer to the printed text more often than I would have wished. Perhaps in the effort to master the very considerable technical demands, the singers gave less emphasis to enunciating the text clearly. This is a pity as Bach, following in the footsteps of Schütz, also word-paints fairly often. Nonetheless, the drama and color of the Magnificat came through clearly.
After intermission we heard two of the six cantatas that make up Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Since each cantata was specified for performance on a different day (the first on Christmas Day, the last well into Epiphany), each has its own story and can be performed by itself. The two cantatas chosen were No. 3, Third Day of Christmas, and No. 6, Feast of the Epiphany. These are rather less demanding than the Magnificat, and the chorus seemed to have a greater comfort level with them. The same quartet of soloists was featured here, displaying the same virtues heard before intermission. Mr. Blandy had the additional role of Evangelist, narrating the story through recitatives as in Bach’s Passion settings.
In No. 3, the opening and closing choruses utilize the same music and text. Under Mr. Ehrlich’s energetic baton their rhythm was infectious as they spoke of wishing our dull earthly songs to be pleasing to the Ruler of Heaven. The second chorus (“Let us go now towards Bethlehem”) was another high point, its breathless urgency well characterized by marvelously nimble playing from the orchestra and crisp articulation from the chorus.
The final cantata, No. 6, deals with the story of the Magi and King Herod. Herod summons the wise men and directs them to find the Christ child and report back to him since he claims (most insincerely) to want to pay his own devotions. Mr. Wilkinson was a deliciously smarmy Herod here. The later chorale “I stand here by Your cradle” was a highlight of the concert. The Spectrum Singers and Mr. Ehrlich demonstrated how expressive it is possible to be within a quite narrow dynamic range of pianissimo to mezzo piano, singing with caressing tenderness and melting beauty. The final chorus was a chorale fantasy “Now you are well avenged” which interestingly uses the tune of the Passion chorale “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded” perhaps as a subtle sobering premonition lest humankind be carried away with euphoria. The singers and orchestra gave us a dramatic rendering. After much enthusiastic applause, the audience was invited to join the performers in another singing of the chorale “I stand here by Your cradle” (a copy of it having been inserted in our programs). It was an early Christmas gift from The Spectrum Singers and John Ehrlich to participate in the re-creation of this sublime music. As Richard Buell used to say, “Received with thanks.”