With singers’ masks dropped and Covid mostly in the rear-view mirror, Emmanuel Music has powered back to form…and how. Under the alert and warmly dramatic direction of Ryan Turner, the chorus, orchestra and soloists (all drawn from the regular contingent), engaged with top-drawer chops and commitment into the 64 numbers of the six Bach cantatas which magically morph into the Christmas Oratorio. Trumpets-and-drums joy prevailed in the 3-hour retelling of the Christmas story, though not without some intense moments signifying the fear of death which Christians believe Jesus to have conquered. Emmanuel Music has been perfecting its patented treatment of Bach cantatas for over 50 years without any doctrinaire cant as to performance fashions.
Witnessing how a dozen or more individuals could step out of the chorus to deliver impeccable renditions of arias helped to affirm our belief that the collegial relationships among these highly credentialed artists can, week after week and year after year, do tremendous justice to the works of the Leipzig master.
The Christmas Oratorio depends on an evangelizing tenor to connect the musical parts to one another as well as to engross the audience in the nativity narrative. In this role, Jonas Budris brought a clear, focused and conversational tenor, recalling Frank Kelly, Peter Pears, and Peter Schreier, which at important times rose from direct storytelling to high drama. The indefatigable continuo team of organist Michael Beattie, double bassist Nathan Varga, and cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer, provided an essential backbone, ever alert to the text and vocal line, often mirroring and imitating the singers with refined realizations. Bach’s spotlight shone often on oboist Jennifer Slowick, who stood in on short notice for Peggy Pearson. Slowick’s luscious lines, often paired most effectively with her stand mate Catherine Weinfeld-Zell. Richard Kelly’s brilliant high trumpeting caused rejoicing whenever he stood to dispatch his unbelievably rapid, and gloriously quicksilver figurations. And when his fellow trumpeters Paul Perfetti and Chris Belluscio joined him in Bach’s exuberant tuttis, there was no place in the universe where we would rather have been. No complaints either about the Emmanuel Music strings—decidedly warm, legato, and vocal.
Limitations of ink (and probably reader attention span) prevent us from describing the contributions of every singer and significance of each number. The following numbers jumped out:
No. 7, the chorale (with just women) and recitative “Er ist auf Erden kommen arm (He came to earth poor), gave plangent bass David McFerrin the chance to console with elegance. Mark DeVoto [HERE] reminds us how short ritornelli with paired oboes and continuo alternate with phrases of the chorale melody (Gelobet seiest du, Jesu Christ) each time followed by two bars of recitative; this is all in a Mixolydian G major with a sudden, exquisite shift to C minor. McFerrin continued in the subsequent aria “Großer Herr, o starker König” (Great Lord, O powerful King) with spectacular coloratura mirrored by the trumpet.
Part II begins with a Sinfonia giving us a leisurely taste of the excellent Emmanuel Orchestra. The smooth modern strings lilted as the four members of the oboe family twined about them, finding a rewarding musical and emotional center. Turner mastered the Sicilian rhythm while letting the majestic tunes unfold naturally. His tempi felt unreservedly right throughout the afternoon as he maintained a feeling of divine wonder and joy.
Time stopped as Carrie Cheron gradually crescendoed from a still-small voice within the orchestral timbres to a dark hued majesty in no, 19 “Schlafe, mein Liebster…”(Sleep, my beloved…). Consoling and soulful, she recalled de Los Angeles in her mystifying simplicity and polished tones. Turner supported her brilliantly, allowing her artistry free reign.
Krista Rivers achieved “blessed miracles” in “Schließe, mein Herze,” (Enclose my heart) as Turner pulled taffy to follow her wonderful rubati. (No. 31)
In the aria Flößt mein Heiland, No. 39, Carly De Franco, sweet-toned and radiant in her upper range, made a mini-drama of how the sweet word of Jesus allows men to shun death. The aria finds the singer duetting with the oboe and hearing passing strange echoes of “Nein!” and “Ja!” from an anonymous chorister.
Will Prapestis, a grand-manner baritone, alternated his very present, emphatic statements with responses from the women of the chorus in the recitative and chorale “Wohlan, dein Name allein,” (Well then, your name alone) (No. 40).
The evangelist rose to the drama depicting King Herod’s fear, as Budris terrified us with forte outburst at No. 48, becoming part of the story rather then simply the teller.
There followed an interesting trio, “Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen” (Ah, when will the time appear). The bright and chirrupy soprano Corrine Byrne and warm-toned tenor Matthew Anderson duetted on one side of the stage while Margaret Lias answered from the opposite side with diva attitude. And the continuo players again strutted some startling riffs.
The opening chorus in Part VI, another-trumpets-and-drums affair with paired oboes, finds the tenors entering with “Herr, wenn die stoltzen Feinde schnauben” (Lord, when our proud enemies snarl) before a sturdy fugue ensued.
Turner elicited a striking rendition of the chorale “Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier” (I stand here by your cradle) with excellent dynamic surprises and curvaceousness. (No. 59)
Tenor Omar Najmi issued in No. 62, “Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schrecken” (Now you arrogant enemies, you may tremble), a commanding but artistic challenge in a seamless legato. Earlier, in no. 41, “Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben” (I will live only for your honor), he had inspired standing concertmistress Heidi Braun Hill to catch fire with partnering second violinist Danielle Maddon as the entire continuo team mirrored Najmi’s passagework brilliantly.
The last recitative, for SATB and continuo, found the four singers widely spaced and putting forth almost as much tone as an entire chorus in mf. “Was will der Hölle schrecken nun” (How can hell frighten now) set the stage for the triumphant final chorale with tutti forces from the orchestra. The three trumpets broke forth with impossible-seeming heavenly gleam and agility and the chorus had preserved enough energy to start the show all over again, much as Bach seems to have suggested by beginning and ending with the Passion Chorale (Hassler’s tune also appears in Bach’s harmonizations five times in the Matthew Passion ). Would that those final lines written in 1694 had been more prophetic:
|Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen|
An eurer Feinde Schar,
Denn Christus hat zerbrochen,
Was euch zuwider war.
Tod, Teufel, Sünd und Hölle
Now vengeance hath been taken
Sin, Death, and Hell, and Satan,
Now you are well avenged
Death, devil, sin, and hell
And perhaps the expert translator and annotator, whose English texts we have used, Emmanuel Music’s own Pamela Dellal, will oblige readers with an essay on literal versus singable translations some time in the new year.
The performance will stream HERE until January 17th.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer