J.S.BACH – Christmas Oratorio

J.S.BACH – Christmas Oratorio
(Cantatas 1, 2 & 3)
Nicola Edgecombe (soprano)
Andrea Cochrane (alto)
John Beaglehole (tenor) / Peter Russell (bass)
Douglas Mews (continuo)
The Chiesa Ensemble
The Bach Choir of Wellington
Directed by Stephen Rowley
St.Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday, 14th December 2008

Surely the first couple of pages of J.S.Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” rate as one of the great musical openings – timpani calling everything to attention, flutes and oboes trilling joyously, and trumpets resounding with fanfares, heralding the festive approach of the processional, with its message of “praise, joy and gladness”. St.Andrew’s-on-the- Terrace reverberated with such glad sounds on Sunday afternoon, instrumentalists and choir launching into the work’s opening with great gusto under the energetic direction of Stephen Rowley, a name new to me, but obviously a conductor capable of getting an energetic and committed response from his musicians.

In general both the Bach Choir’s singing and the Chiesa Ensemble’s playing gave enormous pleasure throughout each of the three cantatas. The opening movement featured some splendid “trumpets and drums” moments from the players, and singing from the choir which had attack, precision, energy and great variety throughout. Stephen Rowley got from his forces both the music’s ritualistic grandeur and its excitement, pacing the three parts of the work admirably through the contrasts afforded by movement and stillness, ceremony and reflection.

In a venue which emphasised immediacy and visceral impact of sound, the music and its performance made a stirring impression. Particularly memorable was the choir’s singing of the more reflective chorales, from “Wie soll ich dich empfangen” in the first cantata, to “Ich will dich mit Fließ bewahren” in the third. But there was warmth and splendour in abundance as well, for instance in the work’s final chorus “Herrscher des Himmels” (Ruler of Heaven), where conductor and voices managed a nice differentiation between gentle and full-throated vocal lines at a tempi that allowed maximum articulation. Only in the angelic chorus in the second cantata “Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe” (Glory to God) did I feel the need for a bit more word- projection – the lines, though nicely dovetailed, didn’t quite scintillate with enough vocal excitement, so that we weren’t quite caught up in the bubbling wonderment of it all as we ought to have been.

As for the Chiesa Ensemble’s playing, the instrumental sounds pinned back our ears right from the opening chords, drumstrokes and wind-and-brass fanfares, all of which were delivered with infectious energy and superb focus. Equally telling was the quality of the obbligato work throughout, strings and winds supporting the vocal soloists unerringly, supporting and colouring the ambience of each episode with beautifully-phrased playing. With the Sinfonia that began the second cantata the music seemed to take a while to cohere between instrumental groups, but in general the players realised all of the score’s rhythmic and textural complexities with great élan, strongly supported by eloquent continuo-playing from Eleanor Carter (‘cello) and Douglas Mews (organ).

Each of the four soloists had challenges aplenty to tackle, with old Bach writing for his solo voices as if they were instruments with effortless range and limitless resources of breath! Tenor John Beaglehole threw himself into his recitatives as though his life depended upon the outcome, and his clear sense of line, of putting across the narrative’s meaning fully engaged his listeners, even though his delivery showed occasionally strained notes. Despite getting a bit out of synch with his accompaniment at one point in the second cantata’s “Frohe Hirten, eilt” (Happy shepherds, hurry), he made a good fist of the difficult runs in this aria, and worked mellifluously with Nancy Luther-Jara’s solo flute throughout. Alto Andrea Cochrane used her rich tones to beautiful effect in the slower music, never more so than in the second cantata’s “Schlafe, mein Liebster” (Slumber Beloved), where her long-held opening notes coloured the music’s textures magically. She also brought off the last, and somewhat treacherous run of “Wo wir unser Herz erfreuen”, in the aria’s middle section with determination and confidence, though she occasionally lost some of her poise and projection in numbers such as “Schließe, mein Herz” in the third cantata, where more warmth in the tone was needed.

Soprano Nicola Edgecombe and bass Peter Russell had a fine time with their duetting in the first and third cantatas, the first a lovely dialogue “Er ist auf Erden kommen arm” with the soprano’s chorale light but true against the bass’s focused and properly weighted recitative “Wer will die Liebe recht erhöhn”. The second, “Herr, dein Mitleid” featured nicely “sprung” rhythms and finely-sustained lines from both singers, with great teamwork at “Deine Holde Gunst und Liebe”, delivered against a backdrop of beautifully- voiced oboe accompaniment. Peter Russell, in his several solo arias, demonstrated his usual intelligently musical responses to words and music, retaining his balance and momentum even when the highest notes seemed just beyond his reach. The three cantatas were played without a break, making for a rich hour-and-a-half’s concert whose proportions seemed well-nigh perfect for a pre- Christmas Sunday afternoon – for the goodly crowd which attended, it proved a delightful and rewarding musical experience. (PM)

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