Handel and Haydn Society decorates Christmas with Bach and a garland of other Baroque masters
A person could get a little worried, opening a program book titled “A Bach Christmas” and seeing a flurry of other composers’ names.
But no, there it was, on the bill at the Handel and Haydn Society’s concert Thursday night in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, the longed-for name: Johann Sebastian Bach.
In a program so extensive it filled one page of the book and spilled onto a second, Bach’s name appeared only twice. But what a pair: the Chrtistmas cantata Dazu ist erscheinen der Sohn Gottes, BWV 40, and Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben, the fourth of the six cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248.
And the cloud of witnesses that surrounded the great name were no also-rans either, but a roll call of masters of the late Renaissance and early Baroque: the passionate Spaniard Victoria, the Venetian-trained Germans Hassler and Schütz, the tender and elegant Corelli (whose music one contemporary called “the bread of life”), Scarlatti père, Sweelinck, Vulpius, Praetorius…the list went on.
And all this compositorial wattage was trained on one of the most humble and gentle scenes in the Bible, the baby Jesus resting in the feedbox of animals.
It made for a comparatively quiet and meditative evening, as conductor Scott Allen Jarrett and his varied forces of chorus, chamber orchestra, vocal soloists, or all these together contemplated the theological implications of this simple tableau.
In fact, if one had a quibble with these generally superb performances, it would be that the occasional darker thoughts and touches of drama that leavened this music tended to be lost in the haze of tender sentiments.
But one had to appreciate the unusual care with which the program was constructed, beginning a capella with Hassler’s intricate motet Verbum caro factum est and gradually swelling the forces to end each half with a Bach cantata, ablaze with horns and oboes.
In the Hassler, the chorus of nine women and eight men–a proportion one would have happily seen reversed, since lower voices are always somewhat disadvantaged acoustically—groped a bit for pitch and blend, but sang with a refreshingly frank, trumpet-like sonority.
The group found its pitch groove in the plainsong Alma redemptoris mater and Victoria’s lush, modern-sounding motet on it. The chant was sung with a curiously non-legato articulation, a vocal style Jarrett favored throughout the evening, not always to the music’s advantage, it seemed to this listener.
On the other hand, the chorus’s sumptuous tone and right-on tuning of Victoria’s rich modulations was a delight to the ear. Even conductor Jarrett was moved at times to drop his arms and just listen.
It was also an evening of excellent solo vocal performances, not least from Jarrett himself, who regaled the audience during orchestral setups with observations about the music to come, in a tone that managed to remain conversational while carrying to the back row without amplification.
Among soloists who sang, the first up was soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad, stepping out of the chorus (as did all the other soloists) to perform Alessandro Scarlatti’s solo Cantata Pastorale per la Natività di Nostro Signore Gesu Cristo (Christmas Cantata). Tengblad set a high standard with her bright, agile, yet substantial delivery, touched with light, rapid vibrato that didn’t intrude too much on the straight-tone orthodoxy of the accompanying strings. She also didn’t let the score’s darker moments—winter’s chill, mankind’s “harsh and bitter fate”—intrude much on the mellow Nativity mood.
The program’s sonic canvas spread wider as chorus and orchestra joined forces in Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus natus est, in which constant changes of meter kept performers and audience on their toes. The performance made the most of the score’s emphatic repetition of “Hodie” (today) and clever use of counterpoint to turn 17 singers into multitudes of rejoicing angels on high and righteous people below.
With the first whoop of the hunting horns in Bach’s BWV 40 cantata, the page was turned to an era closer to our own and a musical personality deeply familiar to nearly every listener. Hornists Elizabeth Axtell and Yoni Kahn managed their challenging “natural” instruments well in glowing long notes and in the rocky shoals of rapid passages.
And it’s remarkable how two dulcet-toned Baroque oboes amid the tumult of singers and instruments can change the sonic landscape, when played as spiritedly as Stephen Hammer and Lani Spahr did Thursday night.
Like the orchestra, the chorus had its dancing shoes on in the opening number, proclaiming the arrival of Christ to “destroy the works of the Devil” in crisp diction.
Crisper still was tenor Marcio de Oliveira in a recitative whose text, though more theological than dramatic in content, benefited from his melodious singing and dramatic flair. These qualities were inhibited a bit by the pesky fast roulades in this singer’s later aria, accompanied only by the agile horns, oboes, and continuo.
The consonant-spitting bass Bradford Gleim most satisfyingly heaped scorn on the “hellish serpent” Christ will crush underfoot, and the rich-toned alto Margaret Lias proclaimed comfort to the “grieving sinner” with vocal power in reserve.
Bach’s chorales give a choir a chance to show it can “speak” as well as sing, and the Handel and Haydn singers interpreted the poetic text beautifully, especially in this cantata’s final chorale, with its abundance of sighing phrases on two-syllable German verbs, a hallmark of Bach’s style.
As the concert opened with voices alone, so strings alone (with continuo) led off the second half with Corelli’s colorful Concerto Grosso Op. 6, No. 8, “Fatto per la notte di natale.” Jarrett’s up-tempo interpretation emphasized the score’s virtuosic and dance-like features, not lingering long over the sections marked Adagio or Largo, and the Baroque string instruments’ clear, edgy tone put an extra icicle or two on Corelli’s Christmas-night scene.
This being a concerto grosso, instruments often stepped out of the ensemble for solos, especially the principal first and second violins, Susanna Ogata and Krista Buckland Reisner, who dueled and duetted with each other brilliantly. Guy Fishman ably contributed counterpoint and the occasional bagpipe drone on the cello.
Schütz’s “sacred madrigal” Ach Herr, du Schöpfer alle Ding gave just a brief taste of this great master, combining Italianate ornament with northern counterpoint in a quiet meditation on the Creator’s humble entry into His creation.
This a capella segment of the program continued with Vulpius’s canon on the Christmas hymn Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, followed by the more familiar homophonic setting by Praetorius. These choral items, simply yet eloquently sung, brought the evening to a resting point, the calm before what Jarrett called “the moment you’ve all been waiting for.”
That, of course, was Bach’s cantata from the Christmas Oratorio, performed by everybody seen on stage so far plus six grade-schoolers from Handel and Haydn’s Vocal Arts Program Youth Chorus.
Jarrett introduced the work as composed for the Feast of the Circumcision, also known as the “name day” of Jesus, and indeed, at certain points in the cantata’s text that name was repeated so often as to become a kind of verbal ostinato.
The lion’s share of meditation on the Holy Name went to bass Donald Wilkinson in two long recitatives, accompanied in places by the children’s ensemble. Wilkinson sang expressively with a big, roomy tone, but his German pronunciation wasn’t up to the standard set elsewhere in the program.
The young singers deftly handled their counterpoints, consisting of a childish ditty in the first recitative but a rather complex, extended line in the second.
Sopranos Jaquelyn Stucker onstage and Brenna Wells in the balcony, with oboist Hammer on the obbligato part, sweetly delivered a classic “echo” duet. Tenor Patrick T. Waters sang a bit of narrative recitative at the outset, and later, accompanied by the two principal violinists in concerto style, demonstrated his fast-singing skills in the cantata’s last aria.
Chorus and orchestra performed with energy and commitment throughout, fleshing out their slender early-Baroque tone a bit to suit Bach’s more “modern” style.
Jarrett proved to be a poised, efficient, yet expressive conductor, a genial presence on a happy occasion. The calendar will bring us eventually to Good Friday, but not yet.
The next propgram of the Handel and Haydn Society will be an all-Haydn program 7:30 p.m. Jan. 23 and 3 p.m. Jan. 25 at Symphony Hall. handelandhaydn.org; 617-266-3605.
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