Last night Emmanuel Music presented J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, to a crowded nave in Emmanuel Church. This was a marathon concert with many highlights.
Bach composed this work for Advent season in 1734–35. The whole is divided into six parts, each a cantata in its own right, and originally designed to be performed on different days during liturgical services from Christmas through Epiphany. Originally the music was performed in Leipzig, during feast services at Nikolaikirche with some repeat performances at Thomaskirche. While now an ensconced part of the holiday concert scene, most performances do not include all six parts on one concert. Emmanuel Music gave us all six parts – three hours of music, with one intermission after the third part – in one concert. There is unity in the entirety of the Christmas Oratorio, but it is subtle. I understand the difficulty of programming this work as originally intended – liturgical services now are not always so conducive to a Bach cantata, and one section of this work does not make a concert program. What do we gain by a complete performance of this work in one concert, as was never intended? Completion and a thorough survey of Bach’s sacred music comes at the cost of taxing performers and audience; perhaps in future this work is better programmed as two concerts not one?
While the complete composition was presented there was not complete unanimity of performance practices. I did not inspect each instrument or ask the musicians, but what I perceived from my place in the audience was the use of mostly modern instruments in the orchestra. Some singers performed more in an early music style – Zachary Wilder & Frank Kelley (tenors), Paul Guttry (bass); others less so – Mary Gerbi (alto), Dana Whiteside (bass). Throughout, Matthew Anderson (tenor) sang the role of the Evangelist; these recitatives are written in a secco style, with continuo but no adornment; it is the Divine Word that is the focus. So there is already a mix of styles built into the composition. Anderson stood and delivered. Personally, I found the great stylistic differences among all the solos to be jarring. I would like to hear a performance with a more consistent style of choruses and arias intermingled with a secco Evangelist part. I think this would help bring out the continuities across the six parts of this work while preserving the contrasts Bach composed.
Stylistic issues aside, there were beautiful moments of music-making. Whiteside’s aria “Großer Herr, o starker König” had a warmth and a full, rounded tone that were a delight to hear. Roberta Anderson (soprano) brought a penetrating purity of tone that was perfectly suited to the words of the Angel in the recitative, “Fürchet euch nicht.” Wilder gave great voice and excellent blending of colors with instruments in the aria, “Frohe Hirten, eilt.” Pamela Dellal (alto) gave a gorgeously introspective reading of the aria “Schließe, mein Herze” and the following recitative, “Ja, ja, mein Herz soll es bewahren.” Margot Rood (soprano) sang the aria, “Flößt, mein Heiland,” with an effortlessly floating tone, while Paul Max Tipton (bass), brought great spirit to “Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen.” The opening Sinfonia of the second part, “Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend,” was touchingly pastoral. Peggy Pearson and Jennifer Slowick brought the oboe d’amore lines to life with nuanced phrasing and sensitive articulation, as did Heidi Braun-Hill and Heather Braun, violins, during their instrumental duet.
The fifth part, “Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen,” is a cantata originally for the Sunday after New Year. The opening chorus, “Let honor be sung to You, o God,” was filled with happiness and unrestrained joy. It was a pleasure to hear this chorus performed with such verve and passion. For me, though, it was also bittersweet: it highlighted the over-riding sense of restraint I felt throughout the evening. Was this a choice Ryan Turner made for musical reasons? Was it pragmatic – an attempt to save the performers for the totality of this concert? In so much else of this Christmas Oratorio performance I detected a reserve that seemed to me wholly out of keeping with the joyous text and the uplifting music accompanying a story of jubilation. True, this tale has its share of tribulations, but are those meant to overshadow the celebration? I am sorry to say for me they did.