Handel and Haydn serves up a joyous performance of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”

December 14, 2012 at 1:56 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Handel and Haydn chorusmaster John Finney led H&H in selections from Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” Thursday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

“Shout for joy, exult, rise up, glorify the day,” reads a translation of the festive opening chorus from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, a work that calls for followers of the Christian faith to awaken and witness the coming of the Messiah.

But one need not be Christian, or even religious for that matter, to enjoy Bach’s yuletide masterpiece, which the Handel and Haydn Society lavished on the crowd of listeners packed into Jordan Hall Thursday night.

Marking the holiday season with Bach’s music is an H&H tradition, and this performance marked their first rendering of a full (or half-full) Christmas Oratorio in five years. Longtime H&H chorus master John Finney, standing in for Harry Christophers, led an intimate ensemble of 16 singers and 17 musicians with zest and spring-water clarity in three of the work’s six cantatas—parts 1, 2, and 6—to tell a compact version of the Christmas story. The first heralds the birth of Christ, the second the announcement of Christ’s birth to the shepherds, and the last, a work for Epiphany, tells of the arrival of the magi and Christ’s ultimate triumph over evil and death.

Bach composed the six cantatas that comprise the Christmas Oratorio for church performances spread out over the weeks-long Christmas season. But he conceived of the separate works as parts of a larger whole. For instance, chorale melodies Von Himmel hoch (From Heaven Above) and O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (O Sacred Head Now Wounded), which the composer also incorporated in his St. Matthew Passion, appear in several of the cantatas as unifying concepts.

Thursday’s performance provided some of the H&H singers with the chance to shine as soloists, and shine they did. Tenor Randy McGee sang with pristine and chant-like tone as the Evangelist. Soprano Brenna Wells struck an angelic presence in both sight and sound in her recitative Fürchtet euch nicht, where the Angel announces Christ’s birth to the shepherds. Sonja DuToit Tengblad’s soprano voice rang clear in the aria Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen.  

Tenor Jonas Budris perhaps offered the finest performance of the evening is his dramatic and even fiery offering of the recitative So geht! and its accompanying aria Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feine.

It was an especially good night for the period-instrument orchestra. Oboists Stephen Hammer, Lani Spahr, Jeanine Krause, and Sarah Davol played together with a warm, organ-like tone on oboes d’amore and da caccia (a crook-shaped alto instrument) in the pastoral Sinfonia that opens the second cantata.

The trio of trumpets—Vincent Monaco joined Paul Perfetti and Jesse Levine—were particularly sharp and in prime form, adding a glorious sound to the opening chorus as well as the concluding Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen, based on the O Haupt voll chorale. Levine also displayed fine execution while accompanying Bradford Gleim’s rich bass voice in the declamatory aria Grosser Herr.

In this inspiring production, H&H provided a fitting start to the holiday season, and a musical reason for much joy indeed.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Jordan Hall. handelandhaydn.org

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