Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Andrew Parrott conducts the JBO in Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Christmas Oratorio (1734), performed less frequently yet more demanding than Händel’s “Messiah”, is actually six sacred cantatas written to celebrate each of the episodes of the Nativity, from birth to arrival of the Magi, and intended to be performed cantata by cantata during the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany (January 5th). With the heavy demands of his role as cantor and director of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig – teaching music (and Latin), managing the choir, hiring and firing musicians, playing the organ and composing music for two churches - Bach made a practice of reusing musical material from earlier compositions, this recycling known as “parody”. However, a good measure of the Christmas Oratorio is newly composed material, including all the recitatives and chorales. The secular origins of some of the oratorio do not detract from the sacred content of the work due to the composer’s unshakable belief in its liturgical significance at a time when secular music was gaining popularity. Each of the cantatas was given its own scoring but all are in the scale of D major and represent Bach at his most joyful, with bells, trumpets, timpani, joyful choruses and Lutheran hymns, the latter being familiar to Bach’s audience.

In the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on Tuesday March 12th 2013, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, conducted by its honorary conductor Andrew Parrott, performed three of the cantatas from J.S.Bach’s Christmas Oratorio – Part 1: “Shout ye exultant this Day of Salvation”, Part 5: “Glory be to God Almighty” and Part 6: “Lord, when our haughty foes assail us”. A scholar of musical interpretation, Andrew Parrott has published important articles on Monteverdi, Purcell and Bach; of special importance is Maestro Parrott’s book “The Essential Bach Choir” (2000), in which he discusses the original performance convention of Bach’s choral works. Basing his enquiry on sources such as Bach’s own writing, the scores he used for performances, contemporary accounts and archival documents, Parrott shows that Bach used expert vocal quartets or quintets and the one-to-a-part singer approach. So, for the JBO performances, one vocal quartet of soloists (soprano Anat Edri, alto Avital Dery, tenor David Nortman, bass Guy Pelc) was placed at the front of the stage, with a supporting quartet (soprano Reut Rivka Shabi, alto Zlata Herschberg, tenor Eliav Lavi, bass Yoav Weiss) placed much further back.

Part 1 of the Christmas Oratorio calls for three trumpets, two flutes, two oboes, two oboes d’amore, two violins, viola and continuo. Following the opening chorus beginning with drums, a rush of strings and winds to the dazzling entrance of trumpets (Naama Golan, Yuval Shapiro, Jaroslav Roucek-Czechoslovakia), David Nortman in the role of the Evangelist, began the recounting of the Christmas story articulately, and in beautifully shaped phrases colored with his bright, warm signature vocal sound. Alto Avital Dery’s pleasing, relaxed and expressive, direct manner always finds its way to the listener’s heart. In “Prepare yourself Zion”, fine teamwork between Dery and the players made for good performance. Following the unique aria shared by Guy Pelc and soprano Anat Edri, Pelc was joined by Roucek in a powerful reading of the bass aria “Great Lord, O mighty King”. In his frequent appearances on the Israeli Baroque scene, young Pelc combines poise, a richly-endowed timbre with convincing performance of these works and is proving to be one of the most promising young bass-baritones around.

Despite its lighter scoring, Part 5’s complex opening chorus was a gush of joy and energy, with detached notes being used to keep the texture candescent. With Ayelet Karni’s fine handling of the oboe d’amore obbligato and ‘cellist Ira Givol’s well chiselled playing in the bass aria “Enlighten too my gloomy mind”, Pelc and his fellow musicians brought out the lustrous and poetic joy of the movement, the celebratory mood to be swept away by the following section in which Nortman describes Herod’s anxiety:
‘When King Herod heard this
he was alarmed
and with him all of Jerusalem.” (Matthew 2,3)
Embellished with the well-balanced playing and fine passagework by JBO 1st violinist Noam Schuss, the performance of the unusual soprano-tenor-alto trio “Ah, when will that time appear?” emphasized the personal aspect of this piece, with soprano (Edri) and tenor’s (Nortman) enquiries as to when the Messiah would appear in melodic lines, both independent and interwoven,  answered reassuringly by Dery. With the final chorale, Part 5 ended on a pensive note.

Part 6, depicting the arrival of the savior to the world with much celebration and pomp, reintroduces the trumpets and drums into the instrumental texture, the cantata’s darker moments making reference to the approach of Lent. In the soprano recitative and aria, intense in their condemnation of Herod and pronouncement of God’s power, Anat Edri, a young singer making an impressive niche for herself in this genre, was confident, her voice rich in expressive tone, as she dealt competently with aria’s the tricky phrasing, small outbursts and sudden, unexpected musical gestures. Taking the work almost to its conclusion, Nortman’s aria “Now if you arrogant foes want to scare”, featuring oboe, bassoon (Alexander Fine) and continuo, was delightful in its mix of timbres, if not as dramatic as the text implies. The imposing final chorus, rich and scintillating in orchestration, makes reference to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in its use of chorale melody.

This was not a performance for those who yearn to hear Bach choral works sung by massed choirs. However, free of the frantic rhythms and overly grandiose gestures that tend to camouflage the real music and meaning of the Christmas Oratorio, Maestro Parrott’s reading of it was fresh, buoyant and joyous, with much emphasis on flow and timbre. Inspired and guided by Parrott’s articulate concept, there was a strong sense of teamwork among the performers, with singers and the JBO’s players meeting the work’s technical demands.   

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