Absences make the chorus work harder in Handel and Haydn’s “Bach Christmas”
Sounding instrumentally fit but missing several key singers, the Handel and Haydn Society bravely tackled the subtle and often knotty responses of J.S. Bach to the coming of Christ in their “Bach Christmas” program Thursday night at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.
Speaking from the stage, conductor Laurence Cummings cited illness as the reason for the absence of sopranos Margot Rood and baritone Donald Wilkinson, mainstays of the group both as soloists and section leaders. (Sonja DuToit Tengblad sang in the chorus but not her scheduled solos.)
Their absence was keenly felt in the cantata arias, but less so in the choruses, where despite its small size—four or five singers to a part–the vocal ensemble adjusted well to the gaps in its ranks. It surely helped that Cummings not only led the concert but had “prepared” the chorus, i.e., led all its rehearsals as well.
But if ever a group needed to be operating at full power, it was in this program. Unlike Handel and Haydn “Bach Christmas” concerts of recent years that mixed the master with lighter fare, this one was all Johann Sebastian, all the time. The bill of three cantatas and a motet was quite a dose; even those lucky Leipzigers of 1730 heard just one cantata per week.
Things got off to a bright and energetic start with the choral motet Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226, which danced merrily through its three movements, even the chorale at the end. Cummings’s bond with the singers was evident in his face and gestures, and the accompanying string ensemble kept up admirably.
The conductor introduced Cantata 36, Schwingt freudig euch empor, by noting that “much ink has been spilled” over the correct number of string instruments to use when performing a Bach cantata, and that “I thought I’d give you the version with just one string [instrument] to a part.”
At the risk of spilling even more pixels, one can observe that the brilliant playing of concertmaster Christina Day Martinson on the virtuosic first-violin part—the first of several outstanding solos by her that evening—argued in favor of the one-instrument theory, but overall the two violinists and the lone violist were a bit overmatched tonally by the winds and the chorus. (Cellist Guy Fishman and bassist Erik Higgins remained stubbornly single all evening, laying down a solid foundation for the whole ensemble.)
With the cantatas, the program entered a Lutheran world of theological poetry quite alien to the Victorian customs and music with which people celebrate Christmas in today’s America. Most noticeably in the familiar Cantata 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, with its sensual treatment of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, but also in Thursday’s Cantatas 36 and 133, the erotic imagery is as prominent as the maternal, and the Kind (child) or Jesulein (little Jesus) in one line of the text becomes the next line’s Bräutigam (bridegroom) or even Schatz (sweetheart).
Whether from an excess of politeness or just the practical difficulty of getting this show on the boards with last-minute personnel changes, these performances largely missed the entire desire-longing-fulfillment arc of expression. Without that love-story charge, there’s only so much a crisply-executed chorus or pretty singing from the soloists can do to make sense of these strange and challenging works.
Nevertheless, the evening offered quite a few distinct pleasures. Violinist Martinson’s fluent and expressive solos were matched by Stephen Hammer’s obbligati, ranging from seductive to peppy, played on the oboe and its deeper, darker, appropriately-named cousin, the oboe d’amore
The continuo group of cellist Fishman and organist Ian Watson drove and supported the music almost like an assistant conductor. For his part, Cummings led the ensemble expressively with gestures or harpsichord playing or both, and no doubt listeners were silently thanking him for never missing an opportunity to liven things up with a brisk tempo or a dance rhythm.
In particular, the overture of the last cantata on the program, No. 133, Ich freue mich in dir, had a Handel-like strut and zest that was most welcome at that late hour, and featured choral interpolations neatly slotted among the orchestra’s phrases.
For choruses, Bach’s music is not especially tuneful or comfortable for the voice—the popular Cantata 140 offering exceptions to that observation—but this composer’s endlessly inventive choral textures and ways of combining the chorus with instruments or solo voices offer rewards of their own, which were abundantly on display Thursday night.
The evening’s solo vocal standouts included mezzo-soprano Catherine Hedberg, polished in delivery and agile in ornamentation in No. 133’s aria “Getrost! es fasst ein heiliger Leib,” and tenor Marcio de Oliveira, whose well-placed voice projected the recitatives of Nos. 140 and 133 effortlessly and expressively.
And the True Grit Award goes to the substitute soloists—sopranos Sarah Yanovitch, Jennifer Ashe and Annie Simon, and baritone Jacob Cooper—for doing at the very least a creditable job with extremely challenging parts on short notice.
For all the beauties of the cantatas, the relief in the room was palpable when Cummings led the entire ensemble in an encore one could practically sing along to, Michael Praetorius’s melodious carol in four stanzas, Quem pastores laudavere.
Thursday’s concert was preceded by a brief performance by a chorus of elementary-school students from Handel and Haydn’s Vocal Arts Program, led by program conductor Jennifer Kane. The youngsters sang the “Alleluia” from Cantata 142 (attributed to Bach) and O Jesulein süss, BWV 493 (definitely by Bach), with a clear, pleasing sound and nicely in tune.
The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday. According to management, the originally announced soloists will perform, if they are able. handelandhaydn.org; 617-266-3605.
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