Nelsons, BSO present a joyful and dramatic “Christmas Oratorio”

November 30, 2018 at 11:52 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra, soloists and Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Winslow Townson

Andris Nelsons conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra, soloists and Tanglewood Festival Chorus in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Winslow Townson

In Part Five of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, the soprano and tenor sing an aria that questions mankind’s relationship with the divine. As their lines weave into a dense web of sound, highlighting a momentary agitation and confusion, an alto calmly but firmly reassures the duo that Christ has already come, an idea that would have been close to the heart of Lutheran listeners in Leipzig during Christmas of 1734, the year Bach’s work was premiered.

The aria is the crux of a timeless composition that reflects upon and contemplates stories from the nativity. For the religious minded, the Christmas Oratorio poses a challenge to affirm one’s faith in light of uncertainty. As a concert experience, it offers pure joy.

Bach’s ebullient score is a favorite for many of Boston’s musical ensembles. Yet the Boston Symphony Orchestra has never performed the work in its entirety (the last near-complete performance was in December 1950, when Charles Munch conducted five of its six parts). 

Thursday night at Symphony Hall, Andris Nelsons led the orchestra in its first full performance to usher in the holiday season as well as the second annual Leipzig Week in Boston, a series of programs that spotlight the ongoing artistic relationship between the BSO and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

The Christmas Oratorio is crafted less as a Handelian narrative than as a series of six meditative cantatas intended for feast days that fall between Christmas and Epiphany. Never one to let a good tune go to waste, Bach reused themes he had written for three secular cantatas and one–now lost–sacred work.

The libretto by Picander, the pseudonym for Christian Friedrich Henrici who also wrote words to the St. Matthew Passion, muses upon the abiding mysteries of the Christmas story and explores the theme of steadfast faith. Though the Christmas Oratorio was intended as church music, Bach crafted some of the vocal parts with a vivid sense of character that could almost fit a contemporary opera. Thursday’s featured soloists mined the oratorio of its stirring drama.

As the Evangelist, tenor Sebastian Kohlhepp sang with sterling, bell-toned brilliance and conviction. Yet he was capable of softening his tone in his arias. In “Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet” he sang with the plush warmth of a believer longing to see the newborn Christ. In several instances, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice made for a poignant Virgin Mary, singing the tender lullaby “Schlafe, mein Liebster” with motherly grace and love. In “Schließe, mein Herze” she beckoned listeners through rich, amber-laced phrases to believe in the miracles the shepherds had experienced in the field.

Soprano Carolyn Sampson and baritone Andrè Schuen made an excellent vocal pair in a number of duets. “Immanuel, o süßes Wort!” had the soulful exuberance of a personal expression of belief. Schuen’s dark voice made for a bold and slightly menacing Herod in “Da berief Herodes die Weisen heimlich,” to which Sampson offered a bright-toned but impassioned rebuke in “Du Falscher, suche nur den Herrn zu fällen.”

For the most part, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by James Burton, sang with authority and precision. The chorales that pepper this oratorio were especially beautiful, the ensemble’s smooth, fluent blend bringing a sense of solace to the reading. 

But in the fugal choruses, the singing was sometimes muddled. A staggered opening attack in “Herrscher des Himmels” robbed the music of its thrust and zeal, though the ensemble faired better in the verse’s repeat at the end of Part III. The choir was more assured in “Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen,” the flowering lines providing a roiling energy fit for any exaltation. The Boston Symphony Children’s Chorus, situated offstage, sounded angelic in “Flößt, mein Heiland,” the singers answering Sampson’s phrases with gentle echoes.

These days, Bach’s music is often the vehicle for historically informed performances. And while renditions on modern instruments can sometimes result in soupy textures, as was the case with Nelsons’ version of the Mass in B minor two seasons ago, the Latvian conductor steered clear of such an old-fashioned interpretation this time. With the orchestra slimmed down to almost chamber size, his sweeping direction had both the zest and intensity one often encounters with period-instrument versions.

The orchestra was superb throughout the evening’s three hours. Led by principal Thomas Rolfs, the trumpeters brought regal pomp to the opening choruses of parts I, III, and VI. John Ferrillo’s oboe solo in “Flößt, mein Heiland” wrapped the singers in silvery threads of melody, and an oboe quartet provided pastoral glow in the Sinfonia. Violinist Alexander Velinzon shaped his many solos in tasteful idiomatic style. The accompaniment to the recitatives and arias had intimacy and delicacy, with cellist Blaise Déjardin, bassoonist Richard Svoboda, and organist Ian Watson supplying sensitive continuo support.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Hall.; 888-266-1200


Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Nelsons, BSO present a joyful and dramatic “Christmas Oratorio””

  1. Posted Dec 02, 2018 at 7:58 pm by Henry Tervo

    Sure Ferrillo was great in his one solo aria, but the real stars of the oboe section were Robert Sheena and Mark McEwan for the most exquisite oboe d’amore solos and duets throughout the oratorio. Bravo Robert and Mark!

  2. Posted Dec 11, 2018 at 6:48 am by Stewart Coffin

    But why so fast? Especially the moving Synfonia and heavenly final chorus?

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