In a season when we can hardly escape being subjected constantly to the same couple-dozen sometimes utterly hackneyed Christmas tunes in temples of commerce, Handel and Haydn Society, conducted by Scott Metcalfe, gave us the refreshing gift of “A Bach Christmas,” exploring sacred music of Advent and Christmas by several members of the Bach family as well as Michael Praetorius and Samuel Scheidt on Friday in Jordan Hall. In his H & H debut, Metcalfe made a compelling case for the still controversial use of a one-on-a-part chorus in a cantata by Johann Sebastian and motet by Johann Christoph Bach.
The first half was almost entirely based on the chorale Nun komm der Heiden Heiland (Now Come, Savior of the Gentiles), beginning with Martin Luther’s unadorned hymn, proceeding through three settings of increasing sophistication from the collection Musae Sioniae by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), and culminating in the 1724 cantata (BWV 62) of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). It was fascinating and instructive to hear Praetorius’s varying treatments of the same text, for four voices, six voices, and eight voices (SSAT, SATTBB, SATB/SATB, respectively). The first felt light and airy without a bass to tether it to earth, and the second was highly ornate with dance rhythms appearing intermittently. The singers, performing without conductor, had an admirable unanimity of sound and style and made the six-voice setting’s many meter changes seem perfectly natural and easy. The third Praetorius setting, conducted by Metcalfe, involved continuo (portatif organ, cello, and bassoon) and two antiphonal choruses in the Venetian manner. There was a telling contrast of marcato and legato throughout, and, the singers’ moderate vibrato notwithstanding, the polyphony was beautifully clear.
Oddly enough, our program notes quoted J.S. Bach regarding his preference, when possible, for choruses with more than one singer to a part: “three sopranos, three altos, three tenors and as many basses, so that if one happens to fall ill (as often happens [and did], particularly this time of the year . . .), a double-chorus motet could still be sung. It would be even better to have four singers to each part, with each choir having 16 members.” Nonetheless, Metcalfe argued that, if one reads the evidence conservatively, J.S. Bach’s chorus for any choral work might well have paralleled that of Praetorius or Scheidt or J.C. Bach: an SATB quartet of virtuoso solo singers. The performance of the cantata of J.S. Bach (Nunn komm) and motet of J.C. Bach (Lieber Herr Gott) certainly supported the tenability of this position. Singing with a period-instrument ensemble, the quartet never had to fear balance problems even in the bustling accompaniment of the opening chorus. Tenor Marcio de Oliveira sang his aria Bewundert, O Menschen, dies Große Geheimnis (“Marvel, O mankind, at this great mystery”) with exemplary Baroque style though a bit more wonder or mystery would not have gone amiss. His mellow sound was handsome in its upper regions but sometimes disappeared in its lowest register despite the instrumentalists’ sensitivity. Bass David McFerrin made a dramatic, even heroic, entry with his recitative and aria Streite, siege, starker Held! (“Fight, conquer, mighty hero!”) , a showpiece largely made up of brilliant sixteenth-note runs. Every singer has his or her ideal tempo for coloratura, and on this occasion, Metcalfe didn’t quite find McFerrin’s, leaving the bass slightly behind once or twice. Soprano Brenna Wells and countertenor Martin Near delivered their duet-recitative with chaste reverence, and the final chorale of praise to the Trinity was likewise, concluding with a luminous Picardy third.
Johann Christoph Bach (1642-1703), first cousin to Johann Sebastian’s father, Johann Ambrosius, was perhaps the mostly highly esteemed composer in the Bach clan before J.S. Johann Christoph’s double-choir motet Lieber Herr Gott, erwecke uns auf (“Dear Lord God, awaken us”) was sufficiently important to J.S. that he prepared a set of instrumental parts for it quite near the end of his life: possibly, he hoped to have it sung at his funeral (there are no existing records of what music was performed). Aside from composing uncommonly fine music, J.C. Bach was a master of text-painting. The vigorous opening did indeed “awaken us”, and scintillating roulades on the word Freuden (“joy”) rejoiced very effectively. Even the concluding “Amen” was dramatically set by the composer and sung thus by the double chorus. As in the preceding cantata, the Handel and Haydn singers used their mastery of the work’s virtuosic demands as a means to an end.
The second half opened with purely instrumental music by two more members of the extended Bach family, and Metcalfe joined the first violins, acting as “leader” (the more instructive British term for concertmaster) rather than “conductor.” We heard excerpts from each composer’s Suite in G Major. First was the Ouverture from the suite of Johann Ludwig Bach (1677-1731), a typical French overture but not without a few unusual harmonic turns. The H&H ensemble played it with plenty of joie de vivre and snappy double-dotted rhythms. We next had six dances from the suite of Johann Bernhard Bach (1676-1749). Especially enjoyable were the stately Sarabande with its many contrasts of texture and color; the merry Bourée, winds alternating with strings; and the breathless Gigue whose triplets were all dotted in the middle, heightening the rhythmic propulsion. The players brought the dance element to the fore and maintained it with immaculate ensemble.
The choir returned for the remainder of the program, beginning with three motets of Samuel Scheidt (1587-1654). Duo seraphim (translated from the Latin) begins: “Two seraphim were calling one to the other . . .”, and we heard not only the two antiphonal choruses on stage—in the unusual configuration of SSAT + ATBB—but, initially, two solo voices (soprano and alto) from the balcony behind many of us, as though those first two seraphim inspired more to call to each other. Evocative indeed. Then came two motets from the collection Cantiones sacrae: Puer natus in Bethlehem (“A boy is born in Bethlehem”) and Gelobet seystu [sic], Jesu Christ. The former is certainly one of Scheidt’s most popular works, owing to its irresistible triple rhythm and pairs of Alleluias at the end of each phrase. The H&H singers’ exciting performance gave it plenty of thrust and pull. The latter featured an unusual and arresting series of echoes on the final word, Kyrieleis (Lord, have mercy) before the emphatic conclusion.
The artists returned to Michael Praetorius for the concluding group: settings of Puer natus in Bethlehem, In dulci jubilo, and Singet und klinget. While Scheidt’s setting of Puer natus is fleet and brief, Praetorius’s version is greatly extended, mixes German with Latin text, and builds up the celebration more gradually. In dulci jubilo is a well-known setting, and again the singers demonstrated their facility with sudden shifts into dance rhythms. The last work, Singet und klinget ihr Kindelein (“Sing and let your voices ring, O little children”), was the only one of the three with a text entirely in German, much of which speaks of resounding voices. The H&H singers, with undiminished energy, gave a performance that was both deft and resonant. The choir’s precise tuning, clear diction, and constant awareness of text, the instrumentalists’ virtuosity and sensitivity to the singers, and the assured and stylish direction of Scott Metcalfe made this program a joy to listen to. Countertenor Martin Near ably filled in throughout for indisposed alto Thea Lobo.
There is certainly a vast repertoire of Advent and Christmas choral literature by the Bach family and others; it would be a fine Christmas gift to make “A Bach Christmas” an annual alternative or adjunct to the anticipated but ubiquitous Messiah.