Bach Cantata Choir: Baroque Christmas

Choir pairs choral-orchestral classics by Schutz and Bach

By BRUCE BROWNE & DARYL BROWNE

The pairing of German Baroque music pillars Heinrich Schutz and Johann Sebastian Bach is a treat any time. But at Christmas, programming the Weihnachtshistorie (Christmas Story) of Schutz with the Bach Magnificat – brilliance. The weekend before Christmas, Portland’s Bach Cantata Choir gave us both pieces: the Christmas Story, served two ways.

Bach Cantata Choir performed Christmas music by J.S. Bach and Heinrich Schutz. Photo: Ric Getter

Ralph Nelson directed these major Baroque works by the two great German geniuses, one representing the early part of that music period (1660) and one the later (1723). Despite their similarities — both use strings, winds, continuo, choir and vocal soloists; both are bookended by chorales (in their current forms) — it’s the differences between the two that make the program pairing so enticing.

The Schutz Christmas Story, which began the evening’s music at Portland’s Rose City Park Presbyterian Church, is taken from the chronology of Jesus’s birth as found in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. A brief opening chorale introduces the work (“the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ”) and the narrator (“as it has been described to us by the holy evangelist”). Cue the tenor evangelist who sings the gospel text in recitativo secco (dry recitative) accompanied only by continuo, often sustained tones.

The evangelist uses narrative form, conveying what is significant in a rhetorical way. There is a great deal of “this happened” and “and then that happened.” But lest that description conjure a line of endearing seven-year olds coming forward in church to say their lines, fear not. At nearly 80 years old, Schutz was a master craftsman. He has three entities – the angel, King Herod, and the choir – bring Christmas story characters to life. Instruments of the orchestra serve the rhetoric of the characters, using the musical color style of the late Venetian Renaissance. Trumpets project the royalty of Herod; flutes paint the pastoral setting; trombones foretell the pomp.

We hear for example, several examples of the word painting we’ve come to expect in that time period (late Renaissance – early Baroque): the Angel repeatedly exhorting Joseph to “stand up” (Stehe auf) and a few seconds later, as he “flees” (fleuch) into Egypt, the text is reflected perfectly in the busy 16th notes of the Angel’s aria. Later, the Evangelist describes the “lamentation, weeping and great mourning” (“Klagen, Weinens und Heulens”) of Rachel weeping for her children, these emotions are complemented in the accompaniment by finely wrought chromaticism, very advanced for its day.

Soloists were mostly in fine voice, particularly soprano (Angel) Jocelyn Claire Thomas, baritone (Herod) Kevin Walsh and Evangelist tenor Brian Tierney. Mr. Walsh was resonant and rich in his role as Herod; Ms. Thomas shone brightly as the Angel. All three also soloed in the Magnificat.

The Evangelist is the principal role in any oratorio of this genre. Nikolaus Harnoncourt quotes Schutz: “The evangelist does not dwell longer on one syllable than one ordinarily does in slow, understandable every speech.” (The Musical Dialogue: Thoughts on Monteverdi, Bach and Mozart, Hal Leonard, 1997). Or, as director Nelson mentioned in pre-concert notes: for Schutz, it is all about the text. Sing it as if speaking it.

Mr. Tierney displayed a rich color, and clear diction. Often though, his monologue did not flow naturally in the service of the native German text, lingering instead on unimportant words such as “und” (and).

Honorable mention to the two flutists, Abby Mages and Darren Cook (an unannounced last minute replacement for ailing Rachel Rencher) and bassoonist Dagny Regan, who gave us a spectacular moment in Intermedium 3: “Die Hirten auf dem Eide” (The Shepherds in the fields), performed sensitively with the women of the choir. The piece is written for three voices, so giving it to a women’s choir required them to be extra delicate. It worked nicely.

High Baroque Hallmark

The Weihnachtshistorie is a natural precursor to the Bach Christmas Oratorio. While more arcane in its use of recitative and choir, Weihnachtshistorie can be viewed as a panoply of performance practices and structural organization that drives us right toward that majestic 18th century Christmas work of 1734.

Ralph Nelson led Bach Cantata Choir’s holiday concert.

Wisely, Mr. Nelson placed the Magnificat after intermission, to close the concert. First, the choir sang two carols by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621), more a contemporary of Schutz than Bach: the well known “Es is ein Ros’ entsprungen” (Lo how a rose is blooming) and “Psallite” (Sing psalms). It seemed a challenge for the choir to throw the switch to a cohesive a cappella sound, after having sung a work with the orchestra.

Bach’s Magnificat is a hallmark of the high Baroque. This is the genius product of a genius composer; there’s not a wrong note or inflection anywhere. In an arch-like structure it begins and ends with the same thematic material, finishing on the words “as it was in the beginning is now and always. Amen.”

And the tone painting! A rising line on “et exsultavit” (he has exulted), descending on “deposuit” (he has put down) and “scattering the arrogant” by throwing the word “dispersit” around the choir sections. This is similar to Schutz word painting but Schutz uses it in brief spurts; Bach gushes.

Bach’s Magnificat does not tell the story of Christ’s birth. It is a direct setting of the Canticle of Mary – the Virgin Mary’s hymn of praise to the Lord upon being told she is to give birth to the savior (as in Gospel of Luke). The choir and soloists sing the Magnificat in twelve movements – solos duets, trios and choruses, some of which are built on fewer than ten words, as in the first soprano aria “Et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo” (And my spirit has exulted in God my savior). No evangelist; no recitative.

It’s one of the best examples of the sort of “ruling power” of Baroque performance: the Doctrine of Affections. Here, in place of the old idea of painting individual words, the composer made each movement dominated by one overall “affection,” or all-permeating (governing) musical concept. Bach brings this device to life in every single movement. It’s as if the composer were inspired to condense every idea of Baroque rhetoric into movement after movement.

In toto, this orchestra, many of them frequent partners with the Bach Cantata Choir, was a very fine ensemble. They seemed truly to embody a Baroque disposition, including sensitive strings led by concertmaster Mary Rowell.

They complemented a choir that sang with sensitivity and enthusiasm in response to Mr. Nelson’s clear beat in both major works. The opening tempo was spot on, and later choral movements were equally arresting, as in “Fecit Potentiam” (He hath shown strength) and the well known and often excerpted “Sicut locutus est” (“In accordance with what He said”). As is often the case in an acoustic such as this, the bass section was somewhat suppressed. Could a way be found to combat that by placing the basses towards the front?

John Vergin anchored the ensemble on organ continuo, with partners Dale Tolliver on cello and Garrett Jellesma on bass. All were nigh impeccable. During intermission, as the three trumpets began warming up for the Magnificat, several audience members came forward, one commenting “oh, there are the trumpets, I just love the trumpets.” Yup. Full agreement. Gerry Webster, Bruce Dunn and John Kim soared.

Alto Megan Matoon and mezzo soprano Sheryl Wood joined the vocal cast for the Magnificat. These two women and and now not-evangelist Tierney were in splendid voice. Some slight distractions were evident in the duet “Et misericordia” (And his mercy…), where coordination of phrase endings was ragged, and in the trio “Suscepit Israel” (“He has taken care of Israel”) with Mss. Thomas, Matoon and Wood, which was unsteady in tempo and internal phrase agreement. Mr. Tierney’s tempo in “Deposuit” (He has put down) was helter skelter. Finding the perfect tempo for that aria is always tricky.

Paired Perspectives

Portland is fortunate to offer several ways to hear Baroque music over the holidays and throughout the year, with options of period instruments or not. Bach Cantata Choir is consistent in using modern instruments, which we heard in the performance of these two works. It could be argued, though, that none of the inspiring Bach performances in the past weeks were “authentic” because the choruses were mixed (male and female). Bach (and Schutz) were constrained by their church affiliations in employing women.

So if we take the word “authentic” out of the discussion and replace it with “informed” or “stylistically true,” we can choose concerts by our preference of what moves us. The aforementioned Weihnachtshistorie double flute/bassoon “Intermedium 3,” for example, was delicate and pure. I did not sit wishing the flutes were recorders. Certainly, modern instruments can serve our Baroque performances. We can have it both ways, take your pick.

The Bach Cantata Choir served the Portland audience two deliciously different choral/orchestral works for the Christmas holiday. In programming these works side by each we can experience the story – a chronology of the beginning of the life of Jesus, with all of the characters therein (the Weihnachtshistorie) and the personal and intimate reflection of one – Mary – from her devotion, fear and acceptance (Magnificat). Two viewpoints of the Savior’s birth.

And once again, the BCC musicians and director Nelson performed their best in the service of the music and the composers of Baroque music. The full house on Friday was mute testimony to the popularity of their programs.

Coming up next for Bach Cantata Choir is “Super Bach” Sunday concert, February 3.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer.

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2 Responses.

  1. Barbara Lance says:

    Lovely review, thank you. I’d like to request a correction: due to illness, Rachel was replaced on flute by Darren Cook, who I believe performed admirably on such short notice.

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