Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performs J.S.Bach's Christmas Oratorio

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of four cantatas of J.S.Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, heard by this writer December 7th 2009 at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, was the first of a number of different performances of the work to take place in Israel during December 2009. Conducting the IPO was Peter Schreier, well known to Israeli audiences from his concert appearances here as a solo tenor singer. Joining the Prague Philharmonic Choir (musical director Lukas Vasilek) were soprano Talia Or, mezzo-soprano Britta Schwarz, tenor Daniel Johannsen and baritone Andreas Scheibner.

Originally written in German, the Christmas Oratorio, with a third of its music borrowed from earlier Bach works, takes its texts from the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew, from words of church hymns as well as from madrigalesque works. Composed in 1734, the first performances took place from December 24th 1734 to January 6th 1735, the six cantatas having different instrumentation and being performed on different feast days. Musicologists differ in their claims as to whether Bach saw this “cantata cycle” as six separate works or as one brilliantly structured work of six sections consisting of 64 musical pieces. After Bach’s death, the work fell into oblivion and only performed again in 1857 in Berlin.

In this concert we heard Cantatas I, II, III and VI. The Prague Philharmonic Choir took on board the technical and musical demands of the work. A large choir of large voices, it tends to be soprano-heavy, with lower voices, at times, less evident. German mezzo-soprano Britta Schwarz, a singer performing much Baroque music, gave a highly detailed and sensitive reading of the texts, her phrases shaped and well chiseled. In his first guest appearance with the IPO, baritone Andreas Scheibner pleased the audience with his rich and stable vocal lines and his articulate, meaningful performance. The richness and fruity color of Jerusalem-born Talia Or’s soprano voice is matched with her forthright personality and gregarious musicality. In the duet for soprano and bass “Lord, Thy mercy, Thy forgiveness”, Or and Scheibner blended, contrasted and wove their vocal lines around each other, with IPO woodwinds gracing one of the loveliest moments of the performance.

Tenor Daniel Johannsen (b.Austria 1978), no newcomer to the IPO, gave a truly brilliant performance as the Evangelist. Giving expression to each idea and gesture, he addresses and involves his audience. His singing is articulate and flexible, his vocal agility set off by a sense of the dramatic moment and the bright, rich timbre of his voice.

Peter Schreier’s reading of the work, though at times pedestrian, shone in the delicate blending and interaction of instruments and solo voices in obbligato arias. These were moments to savour.

Rachel Daliot's program notes were interesting and informative.

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