Handel and Haydn offers an enjoyable, basically Bach Christmas program

December 16, 2011 at 3:12 pm

By Keith Powers

Offering an antidote to heavily hyped holiday productions, the Handel and Haydn Society presented “A Bach Christmas” Thursday evening at Jordan Hall. Directed by H&H newcomer Steven Fox, and set for small ensemble (a dozen players) and chorus, the concert featured two Bach cantatas, bookending selections from lesser known Baroque holiday compositions.

The two cantatas, BWV 133, Ich freue mich in dir, and Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen, which forms part V of the Christmas Oratorio, anchored the program. Both were written for performance during the then-traditional weeklong Christmas celebrations of Bach’s time. Two solo arias in Ich freue mich—for alto Emily Marvosh, and soprano Margot Rood—are set off against hymn-like chorale sections, and minor key recitatives that admonish potential doubters. With a choral beginning and ending, the work begins and ends with an uplifting tone—the “I find joy in thee” of the title. The arias in Cantata 133 are more personal, almost operatic, with the soloists frequently doubled by a pair of oboes d’amore.

Marvosh sang with a striking, dark and emphatic tone, accompanied wonderfully by oboists Stephen Hammer and Kathleen Staten. The soprano aria truly stood out: Rood worked her way precisely through a dramatic, melismatic aria, with the central Largo section, Wer Jesu Namen nicht versteht, presenting a minor-key warning to those who fail to embrace the Christ-child’s coming. Repeatedly, Rood was doubled with trumpet-like flourishes by the oboes, almost a martial warning.

Fox chose works from the far reaches of the Baroque repertory to fill the middle of the program. Two compositions from south of the border, an anonymous instrumental sonata from a recently uncovered trove of Bolivian music, and Manuel de Zumaya’s Celebran, Publiquen, a Marian text with an uptempo character. The Bolivian sonata, in three brief movements, was of interest for its historic value; it could have been taken from any copyist’s notebook. Zumaya’s vivacious choral setting, where Fox chose to double the solo voice for clarity, was a superb addition to works praising the Virgin birth. Bass soloists Jacob Cooper and Michael Dauterman stood out for their blend of sound and tonal clarity.

Fox, who founded the first early-music ensemble in St. Petersburg, explored the Russian orthodox Baroque with Bortniansky’s a cappella Te Deum (Russian: Tebe Boga Hvalim). Without accompaniment, the chorus had its finest moment of the evening, as did Fox. The multiple layers of harmonic material were handled with fluid ease, and the singers responded to the unambiguously upbeat text with energy. Fox divided two simple four-part American choral works, including Jeremiah Ingalls’ Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, into sectional solos, adding a touch of drama to these straightforward unison works.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a sprawling, six-part work meant to stretch from Christmas Day to the Epiphany. The fifth section, performed here, describes the arrival of the Magi at the manger.

The ensemble singing was bold, as it was throughout. Instrumentalists, exposed with so few members in each section, offered some intonation they would surely like to take back, but played with freshness and interest. Particularly impressive were the first violins, led by Krista Buckland Reisner.

Solos selection were highlighted by a trio—Ach, wen wird die Zeit erscheinen?—with soprano Sonia Dutoit Tengblad, alto Thea Lobo, and tenor Stefan Reed blending handsomely. It showed off the performance in a nutshell: not major, starry voices, but strong singing, well conducted. Fox chose to repeat the opening Gloria as a finale—“it has some historical precedence, and besides, it’s fun to sing,” he said—a fitting holiday touch.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday. handelandhaydn.org; 617-266-3605.

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