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Bach’s Christmas Oratorio Splendorous at Harvard


It started with Bach

Christmastide at Harvard always includes a panoply of concerts, but last night’s event at Sanders Theater took on particular splendor: Parts I, II, and III of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, with three different choruses — the Radcliffe Choral Society, Harvard Glee Club, and Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum all joyfully brought together with a chamber orchestra. Andrew Clark ably directed more than 200 singers and players.

Bach intended the six cantatas constituting the Christmas Oratorio for separate mornings and afternoons of celebration, with Parts IV-VI from Circumcision to Epiphany. Part I describes the Nativity, Part II begins with “Shepherds abiding in the field,” and in Part III, the Evangelist in Luke 2: 1-17 “…glorifies and praises God.” Bach put everything together in 1734, recycling the music from a dozen or more secular cantata movements with new texts added, and interspersing arias and recitatives, along with familiar chorales as newly texted hymns, intending the original performances for his own churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas in Leipzig.

Everyone has favorite moments in the Christmas Oratorio: the invigorating brilliance of the opening choruses with trumpets and drums in Parts I and III; the Sinfonia in siciliana rhythm beginning Part II with two oboes d’amore and two oboes da caccia (in practice, two regular oboes and two English horns); the comforting “Wie soll ich dich empfangen?” chorale using the same melody, originally by Hassler, that appears five times in the Saint Matthew Passion; the lullaby “Schlafe, mein Liebster” in Part II; the “Glory to God in the highest” chorus in Part II. I’ll cite one of my own choices: the no. 7 Chorale with recitative in Part I, “Er ist auf Erden kommen arm,” in which short ritornelli with paired oboes and continuo alternate with phrases of the chorale melody, each time followed by two bars of recitative; this is all in a Mixolydian G major with a sudden, exquisite shift to C minor. A solo group of seven sopranos beautifully projected the chorale (you can find the melody at no. 160 in your Bach 371).

Some 22 solo voices, all students, sang the arias and recitatives, and one could not help being impressed by their fine vocal sound, excellent training, and outstanding musicality even when, in that large and resonant hall, they weren’t as powerful as they might have been with more years; we seem more and more to be training our singers for Lieder singing rather than the opera house, and yet, that is probably as it should be. I will single out one name, Arhat Kumar, who took the role of Evangelist with steady assurance and clear tone.

The chamber orchestra of 30 professionals may have included some students as well. Strings were 6-4-4-2-1; a portative organ supplied the continuo along with an inaudible harpsichord, and a bassoon added from time to time to the cello and bass. In the tenor aria, “Frohe Hirten” in Part II, with obbligato solo flute, the solo cello in the continuo played plucked throughout, and I was amused to see in my score that the pizzicato is marked “Added by another hand.” The big alto aria, “Schließe, mein Herze,” in Part III, includes a big obbligato for solo violin; concertmaster Sarah Atwood interpreted this in a convincingly Baroque manner, with very discreet vibrato.

The chaste and elegantly printed 28-page handout, identified every performer, and gave full texts including translations plus three pages of excellent historical notes by Daniel Melamed ‘82, one of today’s leading Bach scholars, and a page of credit to Barbara Connolly Lewis ‘49, formerly assistant conductor of the RCS, whose memorial fund endowed part of the concert. (I found only two egregious typos in the program, but then I remembered that the famous 45-volume Bach Gesellschaft edition, begun in 1851 and completed 75 years later, listed “Havard University” among its roster of subscribers. The BG edition of the Christmas Oratorio appeared in 1856.)

Andrew Clark, director of the HGC and RCS, commanded with total attention and confidence, and was repaid in turn by a totally respectful and enthusiastic ensemble. He has been at Harvard now for 13 years, and I warmly recall his seven years directing at Tufts before that. The packed house in Sanders crescendoed with cheers as Clark gave well-deserved extra bows to the soloists and the orchestra.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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