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.
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.