IN: Reviews

Christmas Oratorio in Symphony Hall


Last night Andris Nelsons led reduced forces of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a contingent of the the newly-refreshed voices of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, a powerful quartet of solo voices, and the newly-formed Boston Symphony Children’s Choir, in J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 as part of “Leipzig Week in Boston.” This concert kicked off the holiday music season in jubilant style.

Composed for Advent 1734 – 1735, Bach’s work comprises six separate cantatas, each composed for inclusion in religious services for different days ranging from Christmas through Epiphany; titles of individual cantatas specify the intended date. Bach wrote the oratorio for Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche (all) and Thomaskirche (some repeats). Each cantata possesses structural integrity that is more familiar and more easily discernible than a deeper logic connecting all six into one oratorio. Today, the whole is heard less frequently than some of its parts. This concert marks the BSO’s first complete performance of the Christmas Oratorio. Astute Bostonians may recall, among others, Emmanuel Music complete version six years ago (reviewed HERE).

The evening started auspiciously, as the opening chorus, “Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage” (Celebrate, rejoice, rise up and praise these days) rang out with excellent enunciation and the manifest enjoyment of the singers. This Cantata for the First Day of Christmas then turns to tell the story of the Nativity, with the tenor soloist in his recitatives intoning the role of Evangelist. From here the story unfurls over a run-time of three hours, including shepherds, Magi, King Herod and his wicked ways, and also personal meditations on this core Mystery of the Christian faith as a deity becomes incarnate in the body of a poor boy.

Throughout, the BSO handily spanned the gamut from joyous to tender to meditative. Central to this concert is the continuo line, here spread between Blaise Déjardin, cello; Richard Svoboda, bassoon; and Ian Watson, organ, with reinforcement from Larry Wolfe, double bass. All gave insightful and nuanced readings, remaining as vibrant at the end of the marathon as at the beginning.

The vocal soloists, all in fine voice, gave stellar treatments to their lines. Soprano Carolyn Sampson has a lovely voice well suited to Bach; her recitative and aria, Du Falscher, suche nur den Herrn zu fällen and Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen (Liar, you seek only to destroy the Lord & Only a wave of his hands) stood out. Sampson’s aria Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen (O my Savior, does your name) with echo chorus, sung by the Children’s Choir from the upper balcony, was a masterful reading by all, including John Ferrillo on oboe. Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice sang many lovely and memorable moments throughout the evening; my favorite was the aria, Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh (Sleep, my beloved, enjoy Your rest), rendered with love and poignancy, warmth and an apt frisson of tragedy. Rice’s later aria, Schließe, mein Herze (Enclose, my heart) included a gorgeous obbligato violin part with Alexander Velinzon, a thrilling pairing of equals in this duet. In addition to his ongoing duties, ably dispatched, as Evangelist, tenor Sebastian Kohlhepp shone in the recitative and aria So geht! Genug, mein Schatz geht nicht von hier & Nun mögt irh stolzen Feinde schrecken (Go then! It is enough, my treasure does not leave here & Now, you arrogant enemies, you may tremble). Baritone André Schuen consistently delivered incisive and moving readings of this music, from the combined soprano chorale and bass recitatives sprinkled across the entire oratorio, to such gorgeous arias as Großer Herr, o starker König (Great Lord, o powerful King). Schuen came closest herein to capturing the deeper religiosity, the musical expression of the Mystery of faith, in this music. The trio, Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen? (Ah, when will the time appear?) combined the forces of Sampson, Rice, and Kohlhepp, along with Velinzon on violin, for a movement of sublime beauty.

In Boston we have a wealth of musical choices, especially for such canonical works as this which could sit easily in the repertoire of several local ensembles. Unlike Handel and Haydn Society, this is not a period instrument undertaking, and the tuning is modern concert pitch. Unlike Boston Baroque or Boston Early Music Festival or even Emmanuel Music; with more musicians and a larger venue this was necessarily of a larger scale. At the same time, the BSO did not field a mammoth staging of half a century ago (or perhaps even the fabled ones led by Felix Mendelssohn some two centuries ago). The BSO offered a historically-inflected performance rather than a HIP.  Judicious, restrained use of vibrato from the orchestra, reduced instrumental forces, some built-in decay and delayed cadences achieved great and glorious effect.

Carolyn Sampson, soprano; Christine Rice, mezzo-soprano; Sebastian Kohlhepp, tenor; Andrè Schuen, baritone;
Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Boston Symphony Children’s Choir, (Winslow Townson photo)

Only a few wrinkles, including at least one disconnect between orchestra and chorus, and some jarring brass entrances when they first returned to stage—the latter perhaps a difference between starting intonation and mid-performance intonation—marred the traversal. It is surprising that only once did the continuo re-tune during these three hours with only one intermission; still, ensemble intonation remained remarkably true. But balance constituted the larger problem. This is inevitable in any such secular rendition of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Composed for a church and expressing deeply-held personal beliefs, unlike Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s moments of impassioned interiority do not translate well to such a stage. Voices suited to singing Bach rarely (if ever) deploy the powerful pipes employed at the opera house. Modern instruments will always carry farther. So there will always be a compromise when offering this work in a large space.

Yet hearing Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in its entirety gave a wonderful holiday impetus to the concert season. While this reading may not have reached my Platonic ideal, (that would probably be in a church in Leipzig over the span of several days during Advent, or an acoustically similar, smaller space), it nevertheless conveyed moments of great magic and beauty, and it well repaid the time commitment to hear the full splendor of what Bach wrought.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra


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

  1. And quite the contrary review in the Boston Globe this morning. It is actually comforting to know that the only real way to judge a performance is with one’s own non-expert ears.

    Comment by James Swist — December 1, 2018 at 8:13 am

  2. I’d like to hear from the departed of the TFC. Did this contingent improve on the brand?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 2, 2018 at 6:06 pm

  3. Very fast tempos for some of the chorus numbers, particularly No. 21, “The Angels” chorus…I wonder if they rehearsed them at that speed…just curious.

    Comment by Iama Malted — December 2, 2018 at 7:17 pm

  4. I caught part of the BSO performance via WCRB on Saturday night, and went to the press reports to get an overview of the public record. It got me to thinking.

    Proposal: Given the divergence between the BMint review, and the one in the Globe, AND the easy availability of a radio transmission of the BSP concerts,

    How about a new BMint tradition: An open-mike Sunday morning, in which listeners are welcome to write and post their own review of the event? Let a hundred flowers bloom! as contrarian Charles Ives might have said.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — December 3, 2018 at 4:31 pm

  5. Since Joel asks, I can mention that i heard thumbs down from three individuals summarized below:

    Even after that galling refresh, TFC sounded disappointing. Heavy-handed, muddy articulation and enunciation. They slowed Nelsons down, channeled little joy.

    Did Nelsons have a concept? How could he expect his quick tempo for “Grosser Herr” to work given that woofy baritone? What went on at rehearsals?

    Lumbering double bass at odds with excellent oboes and trumpets.

    There are better solutions for Bach with moderate sized forces.

    But BSO should not cede the field to the HIPsters; they should find their own compelling approach.

    Do symphony-goers want to hear all six cantatas?

    It’s great to have divergence.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 3, 2018 at 6:07 pm

  6. It’s hard to reconcile these views (and the Globe’s) not knowing which performance they refer to, and from where they heard it. On Friday, from Row X, far left, the chorus was clearly intelligible, possibly too loud, although the trumpets dominated all (the horns were lovely in IV.) Nelsons was brisk, except in the chorales, which were leaden. Also, EVERY section ended with a ritardando, regardless of the meter of the music, reminiscent of Boston Baroque’s M.P.

    Comment by martin cohn — December 3, 2018 at 6:57 pm

  7. I wasn’t looking to find fault on Thursday evening. I would have been happy if the syncopations in “Grosser Herr” and “Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen” had been clearer, but apart from that minor point, I was pleased with the chance to hear the oratorio live (Yes, summarized individual, I want to hear all six cantatas.), and I was happy with what I heard. It was a satisfying evening in Symphony Hall.

    Listening on the radio on Saturday, I remarked to my big brother during “Grosser Herr”, “Nelsons is taking this awfully fast,” but I thought André Schuen delivered it well.

    Kudos(es) to all involved.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — December 3, 2018 at 9:02 pm

  8. For starters, I want to hear THIS every year like the Germans do, not the verdammt Me$$iah. If that were the case, familiarity might lead to less posturing in critiques. It’s a masterpiece, and it’s ok to experience masterpieces in less-than-flawless renditions.

    I attended Thu an Sat performances sitting in radically different locations: 2/3 back on floor, 2nd balcony overlooking stage. I know from long experience that Symphony Hall sounds completely different depending on where you sit and discount reviewer comments about “balance” accordingly. There is no such thing in an unamplified concert.

    Couldn’t see anyone past the strings on Thu – couldn’t even see Blaise because he was removed from cello section proper – but Sat I could see stage layout and players clearly. At that performance, the exhausting bassoon and oboe parts got handed off to Ranti and McEwen after intermission, seamlessly to my ears.

    Yes I would have liked to hear clearer articulation from TFC but I know the text so no big deal. Gorgeous alto and baritone solo voices were too opera-y for my taste but that changed with seating position, and I certainly want to hear more of these singers.

    Most importantly, I am deeply grateful to Nelsons for making it possible for me to hear this at least once before I die in a hall I love with musicians I love. The work ethic of Rowe, Ferrillo, Svoboda coming out extra early to warm up at the FINAL performance said all you should need to know about the love and dedication invested in these performances.

    Comment by Rob Schmieder — December 4, 2018 at 9:47 pm

  9. To Rob Schmieder–

    What a professionally persuasive series of comments! Thank you. I’m curious about which vantage point provided the “opera-y” alto and baritone textures, so I can avoid such a seat for future oratorio and cantata performances.

    By the way, I have written last year that the H & H performances of Messiah left out the second section of “The Trumpet Shall Sound,” in which the basso must (most picturesquely) sustain the syllable “-tal-” on the word “immortality” first for a length of nine bars, then for ten bars. It’s the most perfect example of Handelian “imitation in music” on an abstract term that I know (as opposed to physically literal imitation of valleys being exalted or hills made low). Boston Baroque always includes this section. Did you hear it in the H & H performance this year? The editor of BMint told me last year that he would look into it and get back to me, but he never did. Why is it legitimate to cut this glorious section before the Da Capo? One of my scores reads “Sometimes omitted.” I’d love to know why.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — December 5, 2018 at 12:51 pm

  10. In considering any performance of this piece it seems important to me to remember that though Bach designated this work as an Oratorio, it was written to be performed as a sequence of cantatas integrated into the church service on three days of Christmas, then New Year’s day, then the following Sunday, and finally on Epiphany. The Lutheran tradition honored the religious value of music at reaching to God, and Bach’s enormous creativity and artistry at addressing religious meaning is everywhere in this music. One especially powerful example is that the first chorale anticipating Christ on the first day of Christmas is built on the Passion Chorale, used in so many different ways in the St. Matthew Passion, thus asking the congregation to anticipate Christ’s death at the moment that they also begin to honor his birth.

    The forces for which Bach wrote were much smaller than for the BSO performance (perhaps 15 or 16 singers balanced with instrumentalists), and the Leipzig Thomas Church is not very large. The singers and instrumentalists perform from a balcony at the rear of the church that works especially well acoustically while not distracting the congregation visually from the meaning of the music.

    It is a marvelous goal to make a live performance of this amazing music available to current audiences. But to translate the music to such a different space as Symphony Hall and with often so much larger forces seems very difficult. Handel also wrote Messiah for a small first performance (though very specifically not as part of a church service) but during his lifetime already began to address the problems and modifications needed to deal with larger scale performances. Bach, I suspect, could well have been interested in larger scale uses of this music, but as with other reworking of earlier work would have made some adjustments.

    Comment by Martin Gardiner — December 15, 2018 at 1:15 pm

  11. Re: Martin Gardner–“Handel…wrote Messiah for a small first performance.” Indeed, it might have been a bit larger had Jonathan Swift agreed (as Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral) to lend Handel at least half a dozen boys to supply the treble voices for the premiere of “Messiah” at the New Music Hall in Dublin’s Fishamble Street. Swift refused, writing in an excoriating letter, that he forbade any members of his musical forces to provide musical aid of any kind to that “club of fiddlers in Fishamble Street,” including in his refusal not only the boy trebles but pipers, trumpets, drums, etc. Not only was it a “small first performance” as far as musical forces are concerned, but the physical space was too small for the enthusiastic crowds; the ladies were officially importuned to leave their farthingales at home in order to allow for greater seating space. At least Bach probably didn’t have to worry about farthingales at St.Thomas’ Church.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — December 16, 2018 at 10:21 pm

  12. P.S. Swift despised Handel’s “imitative” style, in which physical imagery in a text was mimetically mirrored in the music, i.e. alternating major seconds for “crooked” followed by a longer-held single note for “straight,” or the wonderful unison on “All we like sheep” followed by the diverging melodic lines on “have gone astray,” etc. See Swift’s amusing “A Cantata,” text and music parodying this Handelian style, in (as I remember) volume 3 of the Oxford edition of Swift’s poems.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — December 16, 2018 at 10:59 pm

  13. Handel may have been special to him in this regard, but Swift famously hated all music, didn’t get it, didn’t like it, whinged about it often, and Johnson was not the only peer to remark that. All kinda weird.

    Comment by davidrmoran — December 17, 2018 at 1:41 pm

  14. Quoth Martin Gardiner: “The Lutheran tradition honored the religious value of music at reaching to God, and Bach’s enormous creativity and artistry at addressing religious meaning is everywhere in this music. One especially powerful example is that the first chorale anticipating Christ on the first day of Christmas is built on the Passion Chorale, used in so many different ways in the St. Matthew Passion, thus asking the congregation to anticipate Christ’s death at the moment that they also begin to honor his birth.”

    I am not sure that the so-called passion chorale melody has an intrinsic link to the narrative of Christ’s death. It has taken on that sense, I think, because of the magnificent ways Bach treated it in his St. Matthew. But it is, originally, a tune by the Renaissance composer Hans Leo Hassler, with a secular text: “Mein G’muth ist mir werwirret,” if my memory is correct.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — December 19, 2018 at 12:40 pm

  15. Ha, right, originally a 1601 pop-country romance lament:

    sanctified a half-century later, because it’s so good ….

    Paul Simon’s own 1974 reworking into a different lament ( is therefore altogether in tradition. Who knew?

    Comment by davidrmoran — December 19, 2018 at 3:10 pm

  16. The process of fitting, or retrofitting, poetry and verse to pre-existing tunes is an ancient one. It sometimes evokes wailing and gnashing of teeth when a listener’s favorite song is altered this way, but one cannot stop the march of the human spirit. One example: the so-called Passion Chorale melody was re-employed quite recently, for a Jewish holiday, by an early twenty-first century wag, and I am submitting a Jpeg file to the editor, which he may share with all of us if he so chooses.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — December 21, 2018 at 7:33 am

  17. null>Here’s Joel’s file. The wag must have lost big.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 21, 2018 at 9:25 am

  18. The great part about a contrafactum like this is that it works both ways. Holy Week may never be the same for me again.

    Comment by Thomas Dawkins — December 23, 2018 at 10:11 pm

  19. Some hundred years ago I learned to sing that verse to the tune of Ein Madschen oder Weibschen.

    Comment by martin cohn — December 25, 2018 at 2:28 pm

  20. I believe that the words-and-melody combo provided by Joel Cohen hit the charts soon after the Maccabean Revolt, perhaps as early as 161 B.C.E. Am I mistaken in remembering that an early biography of St. Paul attests to its longevity even then, when mentioning that Paul used to sing it at Hannukah while he was still just a little Jewish kid in Jerusalem, before he changed his name from Saul of Tarsus to Paul? I don’t know how Hassler picked it up, though. Interesting that after its post-Hassler Christian appropriation it finally returned to its Jewish roots.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — December 25, 2018 at 11:47 pm

  21. Alan, I’d like to remind you that scholarly opinion is divided regarding the origin of this tune. While some, like you, favor the Saul of Tarsus hypothesis, there are others who point to a recently discovered manuscript, scratched out in the shaky hand of a medieval monk, Rotschnoz von Ponem. His song point towards an interesting, pagan substratum to the Christmas season, including perhaps rites of animal worship in the extreme north of Europe. The possible relationship of this melody to the famous, if overlong, Christmas Oratorio by J.S. Bach has yet to be elucidated.

    I will turn to our benevolent Editor, requesting him to share with all my transcription of the incipit from the Rotschnoz ms.

    Comment by Joel Cohen — December 28, 2018 at 3:27 am

  22. Bravo and thank you, Joel! This is priceless historical background. Your monk is probably a saint by now, since his name is absolutely divine. I don’t mean to be nosy, but is he the guy that famously had a forebear who, before St. Stephen, was pelted to death with kreplach, for blasphemy (deer-worship)? Happy New Year!

    Comment by Alan Levitan — December 28, 2018 at 11:13 am

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