Every December, as regularly as the solstice, certain holiday favorites fill concert schedules everywhere. There is no end of performances of The Nutcracker or Messiah, and this is hardly a surprise, given how many people are happy to experience them again and again or to introduce them to younger listeners. But it is also wonderful to hear “new” Christmas music, something the captures the spirit of the season with unfamiliar treatments of the familiar story.
Few ensembles devote themselves more to enriching the old favorites with worthy discoveries that provide a burst of novelty, even if that novelty is 300 years old, than the Musicians of the Old Post Road. This year their Christmas programs on Friday night at Emmanuel Church in Boston and on Sunday afternoon in the First Unitarian Church of Worcester (which I attended) included three German cantatas of the late 17th and early 18th centuries and three pastorales from the same period, of which only one was familiar, the “Pifa” from the middle of part 1 of Handel’s Messiah. The addition of two more pastorales from the relatively unfamiliar Johann David Heinichen and the almost totally unknown Johann Chistoph Pez indicated the popularity of these musical evocation of the shepherds in Luke’s version of the Christmas story: cantatas by the essentially unknown Agustin Pfleger, and the increasingly well-known (partly through the efforts of the Old Post Road musicians) Christoph Graupner, and the very familiar Georg Philipp Telemann.
Rachael Carpentier, flute; and Susannah Foster, violin, as well as an exemplary vocal quartet of Jessica Petrus, soprano; Sophie Michaux, mezzo-soprano,; Jason McStoots, tenor; and David McFarrin, baritone; joined five core musicians of the ensemble—co-directors Suzanne Stumps, flute, and Daniel Ryan, cello, with Sarah Darling, violin, Marcia Cassidy, viola, and Michael Bahmann, harpsichord.
The familiar pastorale movement from Messiah, with its lightly dotted 6/8 meter over a sustained bass reflects the bagpiping of shepherds from the Abruzzi that to this day still play in Rome’s Piazza Navona during weeks leading up to Christmas. Handel surely heard them there when, as a young man barely in his twenties he spent several years in Rome. Heinichen also spent six years in Italy, some part of that time in Rome, where he too could have heard the shepherds’ bagpiping. In any case, his Pastorale per la note de Natale rocks gently in the same Italian strain as Handel’s. The third composer of a pastorale, Johann Christoph Pez (pronounced “pets,” not like the candy in a plastic dispenser) was born and raised in Munich, but he, too, traveled to Rome for three years from 1689, where he learned the style of Corelli and the bagpipes of Piazza Navona. His work included in the program was an entire suite called Concerto Pastorale generally alternating slow and fast movements including two identified as “pastorale,” one slow, the other fast! The eight movements were charmingly varied in tempo and character. In all of these examples, the splendid ensemble, all experienced players of Baroque music, projected the sweetness of the lullabies with a gentle lilt, contrasted with the vigorous energy of the contrasting movements of the Pez. In the cantatas, too, they reflected the same dramatic qualities of the arias in competition (a fundamental characteristic of Baroque music) with the singers.
Two cantatas alternated with two pastrorales in the first half. Pfleger’s cantata Mache dich auf, werde licht! (Arise, shine!) is assembled from various Biblical passages and divided among the four singers, who are identified in Latin as “Jewish church,” “baby Jesus,” “Place of the Magi,” and “God through the prophets”—hence, symbolic characters rather than dramatic figures. The piece moves between recitative-like passages and more flowing sections approaching the later da capo aria.
Telemann’s Der mit Sünden beleidigte Heiland (The Savior, afflicted by sins) is in the later style, with two arias surrounding a recitative. It featured the expressive singing of soprano Jessica Petrus with obbligato flute and violin in the arias. As is typical in a solo cantata of this layout, the first aria is somberly expressive, describing Jesus taking on himself the sins of the world. The recitative’s text motivates a strong contrast in the second aria, an expression of joyous confidence. Petrus represented both moods with great warmth.
Graupner’s cantata Das Volk so im Finstern wandelts (The people that walked in darkness), a recent discovery by Ryan and Stumpf, which they prepared for this performance, believed to the first in modern times, brought the show to a colorful conclusion. The ensemble’s dedication to finding overlooked music that deserves to be heard brings much pleasure. Moreover, after finding such works and editing them, they post the music on their website so for other groups to share.
Intended for Epiphany (which is after Christmas, but still part of the season, that celebrates the arrival of the Magi) is exceptionally satisfying, Graupner’s cantata, begins with a setting of the Psalm phrase “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The composer represents the darkness in a low-pitched steady pulsing suggestive of a walking pace, exploding into a bright major-key sonority with the coming of the “great light.” It is different in detail, and employs much smaller forces, but this magical moment almost anticipates the great outburst of light at the opening of Haydn’s Creation.
The next “aria” is actually a duet for tenor and baritone—praise for the night that has passed and the vision for the morning star, which has begun to “twinkle” (prangen). The voices of McStoots and McFerrin make a lively duet, in which the baritone (whose earlier part ran essentially low and sustained as a continuo) suddenly breaks out in a richly ornamented expression of the twinkling star. The alto comes next, with an aria urging haste in following the star. Sophie Michaux and flutist Suzanne Stumpf “hastened” with elegant and joyous roulades. The closing chorale, as in the more familiar Bach cantatas, with all four voices and accompanying instruments, concluded with harmonic and theological solidity.
Telemann composed some 1700 cantatas, and Graupner about 1000. Probably no one knows them all, but Musicians of the Old Post Road’s fine traversals gave a welcome taste of many seeming forgotten treasures.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.