A welcome aperitif after an Advent season filled with second helpings of Messiah performances and holiday sings, Handel and Haydn Society’s “Bach Christmas” came on a virtual silver tray bearing three seasonal cantatas and a funereal motet. The wide range of technique and storytelling we found in this small selection made the show particularly enticing.
Cantata 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, and Cantata 36, Schwingt freudig euch empor, for instance, both relate to Christ’s parable of the ten virgins, which likens the preparation for life in heaven to a bridal party awaiting a groom. Although Wachet auf is known for its ornamented opening setting of Philipp Nicolai’s hymn, the inner movements are far more internalized; the majority of the music constitutes a stark dialog between the soul and Jesus that often approaches a love duet. Other movements come as unadorned recits narrated by tenor and bass or a solitary plainchant melody underscored by orchestral accompaniment. The same parable, told in BWV 36, is far less Protestant in its conception: this cantata is illustrated with intricate choral movements and arias to match the rococo libretto inspired by classical literature. Taking the form of the wedding itself, the first half anticipates the arrival of the groom, the second half rejoices in his arrival. Aside from the inherent drama in its structure, Schwingt replaces Wachet auf’s thorny recits with exquisite arias, duets, and choruses. Bach Christmas matches these two contrasting cantatas with even wider-ranging fare: Cantata 133, a jubilant work written for Christmas, and BWV 226, a sprawling, three-part motet dramatizing the Veni Sancte Spiritus sequence that ends with a harmonization of Komm heiliger Geist, Herre Gott.
These stylistic and structural differences arose from the whims of the various librettists, not to mention the pieces’ liturgical contexts. But, directly or indirectly, they also show Bach at his most dramatic, often brooding and meditative, but able to switch suddenly to rich, deeply gratifying, and frequently, witty discourse. Listening to all four in a single evening can disorient: just as we settle into the meditation of one cantata, we are asked suddenly to shift to another text and reflection, then another, then another…a traversal that interrupts any sort of deep engagement. At the same time, however, this frenetic flight through a liturgical season over the course of a single evening can’t help but thrilling fun in the exciting, historically-informed hands of H&H under Laurence Cummings.
H + H’s Vocal Arts Program Concert Choir of middle-school students that have been training under Jennifer Kane began Thursday evening’s program at NEC’s Jordan Hall. Accompanied by Matthew Anderson on portatif, the Concert Choir performed the “Alleluia” from BWV 142 (Uns ist ein Kind geboren) and a carol (BWV 493 O Jesulein süß). This is difficult music for green voices, but we heard a clear, unpretentious tone and crisp diction.
Unfortunately for the main part of the concert, though, the company was plagued by multiple illnesses, which reduced the numbers of the chorus substantially. This seemed to have the strongest effect on the funeral motet (BWV 226), first on the program. An overly-zealous tempo, combined with a pared-down chorus just beginning to find its footing resulted in a muddiness in which the inner voices were lost to the orchestra. Cantata 36 resolved many of these issues by reducing the orchestra to one instrumentalist per part. Ignoring of the tempestuous debates on original performance practice, the smaller instrumental ensemble supported the small chorus much better, and avoided the earlier balance issues.
Laurence Cummings, who debuted in America with H + H evinced a natural comfort with this music and these musicians. Leading from the harpsichord in a dynamic and engaged manner, he shaped the rich choral textures beautifully, particularly in the hymns peppered throughout the cantatas. The concluding chorale of the Cantata 133, Wohlan, so will ich mich, whose abrupt conclusion was nothing short of breathtaking, offers but one example. In more operatic sections featuring soloists and continuo, Cummings’s approach felt easy and unrestricted, keeping appropriate tempi that allowed the natural drama of the work to unfold easily.
Sarah Yanovitch, in BWV 36 proved one of the most memorable solos of the evening in a duet with a violin sensitively played by Christina Day Martinson. The rich soprano sound projected with a deep intelligence and subtlety. Yanovitch returned in Cantata 140 where she was paired with Bradford Gleim. His robust, voluminous baritone paired nicely with Yanovitch’s refined soprano in two duets between Jesus and the soul. In Cantata 133, Catherine Hedberg’s Getrost! es fasst en heilger Leib playfully and jubilantly paired with the amusing patter of Stephen Hammer and David Dickey oboes.
An encore of Praetorius’s Quem pastores laudavere deserved its warm standing ovation from a full Jordan Hall. The show repeats this Sunday in Jordan Hall.