Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, Cantatas (or Parts) Nos 1,2, 4, 6
The Bach Choir, the Chiesa Ensemble and Douglas Mews (organ) conducted by Peter Walls with soloists: Nicola Holt, Megan Hurnard, Oliver Sewell and Kieran Rayner
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart
Sunday 15 December, 3:30pm
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, in six parts, might be one of a kind, though I have come across a reference to a tradition of five-part oratorios in Lübeck in the same period. It is classified in the Bach catalogue as one of three ‘oratorios’: the others are one-part works for Ascension and Easter; both the Ascension and Christmas oratorios seem closer to the passions in their use of recitative from the Evangelist.
The Christmas Oratorio consists of one cantata for each of the six days of Christmas: 25, 26 and 27 December, 1 January (the Feast of the Circumcision), the Sunday after New Year and the Epiphany (6 January).
Bach adapted them, in part, from three secular cantatas, BWV 213, 214, 215 (written for the Dresden court in 1733), for performance over 1734/35 in the two principal Leipzig churches, Saint Thomas and Saint Nikolai. According to the title page of the printed libretto they were all performed in the morning at Saint Nikolai but the 3rd and 5th cantatas were omitted at Saint Thomas in the afternoon. Whether or not meaningfully, the same two were omitted from this performance in the Catholic cathedral.
The choir is in fine shape, the four soloists fresh-voiced and accurate, and their accompaniment by Douglas Mews and the specifically created Chiesa Ensemble (mainly NZSO players), all under the direction of Peter Walls, brought about a very satisfying performance, given the limited rehearsal time for singers and players together.
It opened with a brilliant chorus buoyed by jubilant timpani and brass, at a steady, imposing tempo. Here, as in all but the second part, Bach’s vivid orchestration, depicting this turning-point for the world’s salvation, was fully demonstrated, while the choral part was delivered with a gusto that assured us that we were launched into a confident and energetic performance.
The busiest of the soloists, tenor Oliver Sewell, in the role of the Evangelist, began with the account of Christ’s birth according to Luke, intoning with clear diction in appropriately declamatory style; followed by alto Megan Hurnard, in the role of Mary, with her recitative and aria that contrasted with the opening spirit through its more intimate expression.
Sewell took other roles in addition to the Evangelist; though his voice is true and attractive, I noticed an increasing tendency, as the performance continued, to slur words in a rather un-Germanic manner.
The first and second Chorales of Part I presented a more subdued character as oboes were replaced by either cor anglais or oboe d’amore; the second chorale opened with bass Kieran Rayner in delightful contrast with the women’s voices, and continuing interestingly in its alternating verses. So it was good finally to hear Rayner with his solo aria, ‘Grosser Herr, o starker König’ projecting with clarity and confidence. All his later excursions were admirable.
Part II begins with a pastoral sinfonia, in an altogether more peaceable vein. As appropriate to the cantata that deals with the Annunciation of the Shepherds, the oboists again picked up cor anglais and oboe d’amore (Bach scored it for two oboe d’amore and two oboe da caccia – the predecessor of the cor anglais).
Other instrumental colours emerged. The tenor aria in Part II, ‘Frohe Hirt, eilt’, with conspicuous organ continuo, was accompanied by brilliant flute obbligato that became increasingly sparkling in its ornamentation; though Sewell seemed here to have too many words to fit comfortably into its speed and complexity.
Also in Part II is one of the most striking and beautiful arias, ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’, a short verse but luxuriantly enveloped in rich reed sounds, elaborated with breathtaking skill and imagination and sung beautifully by Megan Hurnard; sustaining some of her more expressive words with singular beauty.
A hint that more rehearsal might have been useful came, for example, in the chorus ‘Ehre sei Gott’ towards the end of Part II, as it was joyously sung if slightly muddied.
Apart from a recitative ‘Furchtet euch nicht’ in Part II, soprano Nicola Holt waited till Part IV for a substantial entry. She shone in ‘Flösst, mein Heiland’, a not unattractive tremulous touch in her voice, with prominent oboe obbligato: an obbligato that includes the repeated echoing of the rhetorical words ‘Nein’ and ‘Ya’, which has attracted the disapproval of certain scholars. Because this section was taken from the cantata BWV 213 where it was set to words considered suitable, it’s been called an incongruity and inappropriate in this situation, even ‘risible’ for one commentator. Unorthodox perhaps, but words and music seem to me a droll but quite effective device by which to vary the narrative.
Only at the end of Part VI do all four soloists sing as a quartet: only the tenor sang from the pulpit which had been used throughout for solos, while the other three sang (though I couldn’t see) from the floor; they remained individuals rather than a seamless ensemble. And a return to the bellicose character of the opening choruses brought the work to a close with brass and timpani blazing away and choir in full flight, though tiring a little, perhaps, to acclaim Christ’s quasi-military victory over death.