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Bach’s Christmas Cycle Masterfully Done


John Finney led the period instrument orchestra and chorus of the Handel and Haydn Society in a stellar performance of three cantatas from the Bach Christmas Oratorio on Thursday evening, December 13th, at Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory. The performance will be repeated on Sunday afternoon, December 15th, but is reportedly sold out.

Finney has been chorus master and associate conductor at H & H since the 1990’s, and his dedication to the ensemble was apparent in this beautifully detailed and stylistically cohesive performance. In addition to tenor Randy McGee, the Evangelist, nine singers stepped out from the choir of sixteen to perform the various solo numbers. Their “community participation” in individual reflection as well as collective meditation lent further dramatic realism to this reenactment of the Christmas story structured around recitatives, arias, and concerto-style choruses, with chorale insertions marking key points in the narrative.

Although conceived as a whole, the Christmas Oratorio consists of six individual cantatas performed during services at the two main Leipzig churches on six different days of the Lutheran calendar. Bach had signed a pledge to the Leipzig town council that his music would not “make an operatic impression,” yet the Christmas Oratorio still carries dramatic force. The biblical narrative sung by the Evangelist recounts a continuous sequence of events: the preparation for the coming of Christ (Advent), the birth and its celebration, the announcement to the shepherds and their visit to the manger, the naming of Jesus, and the coming of the Wise Men and Herod’s reaction to it (Epiphany). In assembling his materials for the Christmas cycle in 1734, Bach adapted numerous choruses and arias from cantatas for two members of the royal house of Saxony, transposing and reordering them to suit his new purpose. He did so not because he was in a hurry or lacked inspiration, but in order to provide greater exposure for occasional works that would not otherwise be repeated. Bach saw nothing incongruous in adapting music celebrating the birthday of the electoress, “Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten!” (Sound you drums! Ring out, you trumpets!), as “Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage” (Shout for joy, exult, rise up, praise the day) to open the Christmas Oratorio, or the lullaby from the Hercules cantata for the eleven-year-old elector-to-be as a cradle song for the baby Jesus. As Christoph Wolff has shown, Bach (or his librettist) was careful to match the verse form, meter, and rhythm of the new text to that of the old.

Bach kept the brilliant instrumentation of the opening chorus for the electoress in the first movement of the Christmas Oratorio, bringing in the “drums, trumpets, and resonant strings” along with flutes and oboes. In John Grimes’s capable hands, Baroque timpani, smaller yet more incisive than their modern descendants, lent pleasing crispness to the ensemble, and the three natural (valveless) trumpets, played by Jesse Levine (soloist), Paul Perfetti, and Vincent Monaco, were simply spectacular, ringing fanfares and ornamental motives executed with equal ease. Finney conducted the ensemble in a lively tempo that was energetic but never frenetic, bringing life to upbeats as well as downbeats to carry the movement along. Voices and instruments were well-balanced, clear, and audible.

Tenor Randy McGee, taking the part of the evangelist, began the narration of the story as told in the Lutheran bible, sung entirely in “secco” recitative to the accompaniment of a continuo group consisting of Guy Fishman, cello, Douglas Balliett, double bass, and Michael Beattie, chamber organ. McGee has a light and pleasingly flexible voice, and sings with sensitive attention to details of phrasing. Remembering that his role is narrative throughout rather than dramatic, one might still have wished for a more incisive and forthright rendition of the German text. Alto Mary Gerbi followed with a recitative and aria exhorting Zion to prepare for the coming of Christ. Here Bach added a pair of oboi d’amore played by Stephen Hammer and Lani Spahr as accompaniment to the brief recitative, with the soloist (Hammer) as obbligato partner in the aria. Gerbi sang with pure, straight tone consistent with that of the choir, and provided well-chosen ornamentation for the da capo reprise. The chorale that followed marked the end of the Advent section.

A brief recitative narrating that Christ had been born and laid in a manger set the stage for the following movement, in which a bass recitative, sung expressively by Bradford Gleim, alternated line by line with a Lutheran chorale stanza sung by the women’s voices, with the two oboes as obbligato accompaniment. Both recitative and chorale reflect on the contrast between Christ’s poverty and the richness of his rewards to the believer, a theme continued in the bass aria that followed. This was a triumphal affirmation with Gleim’s ringing bass rivaling the virtuosity of the trumpet obbligato. The concluding chorale alternated simple declamation in the choir with celebratory flourishes for trumpets and timpani.

Part II, for the day after Christmas, brought a totally different atmosphere. Focused on the announcement of the birth of Christ to the shepherds and their visit to the manger, its instrumental introduction was an evocative pastoral in swinging siciliano rhythm. In addition to  the alto-range oboi d’amore, a pair of  tenor-range oboi da caccia, beautifully played by Jeanine Krause and Sarah Davol, provided appropriately rustic tone color as a foil to the core ensemble of strings and flutes. In addition to the ongoing narration by the evangelist, solo appearances by other singers represented various characters in the drama. Brenna Wells’s bright soprano announcement to the shepherds was unmistakably angelic, while bass Jacob Cooper, in three short recitatives, reflected on the events. Tenor Marcio de Oliveira’s sprightly aria “Frohe Hirten, eilt” urged the shepherds to hurry to the manger, his virtuosity rivaling that of Wendy Rolfe’s flute obbligato in sinuous melody as cello and bass marked a steady beat in pizzicato. Another highlight was the lullaby sung with eloquent phrasing by alto Thea Lobo, with flute soloist (Wendy Rolfe) doubling the vocal part throughout. Lobo’s rounded tone was occasionally obscured in the lower range, however, by competition from the ensemble of three oboes and strings. The full orchestra was on hand for the motet-like angel’s chorus “Ehre sei Gott” (Glory to God), but it was the choir that dominated the highly contrapuntal texture: fugato-like over a repeated “walking” bass to start off, then suddenly calm over held bass notes at “and peace on earth,” and returning to lively imitations and faster bass movement at “to men of good will.” Finney’s sense of pacing and motivic characterization kept it all together convincingly. The finale chorale brought another stanza of the familiar “Von Himmel hoch” (from heaven above) heard earlier in the cantata, now sounded by choir and strings in alternation with lilting motives from the opening Sinfonia.

Part VI concludes the account of the Wise Men from the East, begun in Part V. The opening choral fugue is massive, as befits the triumphant mood: “Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben” (Lord, when our arrogant enemies snort). Here Bach returns to the meter (3/8), key (D major), and instrumentation of Part I, only without the flutes. In the brief recitatives that follow, the Evangelist introduces the character of Herod, sung by bass Thomas Dawkins. Herod’s deceit and God’s strength are affirmed in the following recitative and cheerful dance-like aria, its bouncy syncopations clearly projected by soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad. “Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schrecken” (Now you arrogant enemies may try to scare me), on the other hand, sung with conviction by tenor Jonas Budris, was a dramatic concerto with obbligato oboi d’amore in addition to basso continuo as participants providing incisive dynamic contrast. It may have been a surprise to some listeners to hear the familiar melody of the so-called “passion chorale” in triumphant rather than mournful guise in the exuberant finale, interspersed line by line in the concerto texture and capped by virtuosic flourishes for the first trumpet. Even in the simplest chorale settings, Finney showed his skill in shaping individual vocal lines, and in larger concerto-style movements such as this one his coordination of disparate elements was masterly.

The program booklet contained informative notes by Teresa Neff, and a helpful note by Stephen Hammer explaining the two types of oboe in the ensemble. Complete texts and translations were also provided. Unfortunately for those who like to follow or at least glance at the text during the performance, the combination of small print and dim house lights made this nearly impossible.

Virginia Newes, who now lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. This review has heightened my anticipation of today’s performance. “Grosser Herr, O starker König” is one of my favorite pieces, and I’m especially happy to hear that it is in good hands.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — December 16, 2012 at 8:30 am

  2. Thanks for the marvelous detail. But that parenthetical “Epiphany” was joltingly misplaced. Herod’s epiphany indeed!

    Comment by Jerome — December 17, 2012 at 8:05 am

  3. My reference is to the feast of the Epiphany (January 6th), which celebrates the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem, symbolizing the epiphany (manifestation) of Christ to the Gentiles, and Herod’s fear that a new “King of the Jews” might usurp his power. Both parts of this story are found in the text for part VI. The libretto includes parts of the Lutheran gospel for the day (Matthew 2:1-12, sung by the Evangelist) along with chorale stanzas and newly-written aria texts that present the reaction of Christians to the events. I hope this clears up any confusion.

    Comment by Virginia Newes — December 20, 2012 at 3:48 pm

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