Bach for Christmas: Jubilant

In the audience for Portland Baroque Orchestra and Trinity Cathedral Choir's Christmas Oratorio: For a music lover, it's pure pleasure

Story and photographs by Friderike Heuer

There are limits, but also advantages, to being a moderately educated music lover – like yours truly – rather than a professionally trained music critic. Good music critics bring an ear, lots of analytic skill, attention to detail, a huge memory bank and the ability to make connections to the table. Their verdicts help listeners to decide what music to listen to and what to be alert to; their feedback also helps orchestras, choirs, soloists to improve performance.

The richness of their experience is undeniable. But their experience is also focused and informed in ways that make their experience distinct from that of the average concert-goer. When professional critics attend concerts,  they need to get all of the performance details right, and their task to assess the performance induces a cognitive load which can be at odds with emotional immersion. They sit at the outside looking (or listening, as the case may be) in while the rest of us have the chance to experience a whole that is comprised not just of the performance but many other interacting factors.

I was thinking about this after listening to the rousing opening Jauchzet, Frohlocket of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral last Friday; under the brisk direction of Matthew Dirst, the Trinity Cathedral Choir of girls, boys and adults, the Portland Baroque Orchestra and four soloists performed the first three cantatas that night.

Composed in the Christmas season of 1734/35, the Oratorio is really a cycle of cantatas, the six parts intended to be performed on the six major feast days over the 13-day period from December 25 through January 6. To remind you where we are in the story that is told across these many days – the story of the census, Mary and Joseph’s search for housing, Christ’s birth in a stable and the adulation of the shepherds – Bach devised a clever trick: He had a narrator, the evangelist, frame the chapters in simple song, sort of like a voice-over in a documentary or the text cards in silent movies, guiding you cohesively through the story. The choir and the soloists then take on individual narratives that explore the various perspectives of the story, with the orchestra providing the emotional color of each moment.

For those who have lived under a rock in our century and never heard  a recording or a concert of the piece: it is jubilant. It is celebratory. It is contemplative. It is tender. It is exulting. It gives hints of what’s to come in the future of this innocent child swaddled in the manger. Above all it is an expression of devout faith.

Which brings me back to the pleasure of the amateur music lover compared to the burden of the music critic. The former can easily imagine sitting in the pews of the church in Leipzig two centuries back and listen to the church choir belting it out, joined in shared devotion, joy and gladness, unawares and certainly not caring if there is brilliant rigor, or the right balance of voices, or a precise shift in tempi. It simply doesn’t matter how they sing; you get swept up in the glow of their expression. There is a shared experience of praise (regardless of your own religious inclinations or the absence thereof.)

There is also the shared experience of a communal reaction in live concerts, if you don’t have to keep your brain in gear to focus on the performance details. It is one of the factors in why almost any live performance beats a recorded one, in my book, no matter what the quality of the musicians – and certainly that of Friday’s musicians was up to standards and in some cases, as we’ll see, far exceeded them.

Think of how rarely these days you experience yourself in a group, jointly reacting to a shared input. Unless you regularly attend services, or frequently visit live theater or join weekly demonstrations, our lives are pretty much lived as individuals and not as part of a feeling whole, in contrast to most of our history as a species. On Friday night there was such an experience when the young countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen stepped up for his first recitative (3. Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam) and a disbelieving hush descended on the still restless hall, stunned by a voice that was crystalline without being harsh on the edges, melodious perfection for the tender words he had to utter.

The combination of musical accomplishment with his empathy for the role and his ability to communicate with the audience was astonishing in one so young. It didn’t hurt to see his etherial presence in the 31. Aria Schließe mein Herz dies selige Wunder be balanced by boyish charm during the soloists’ entrance to the stage; I swear he winked at someone in the front rows. I wish I could have heard him with the Leipziger Barockorchester singing Bach’s Magnifikat in the Thomaskirche. My overactive imagination would’ve had me sit next to Bach’s approving presence right then and there….

He might have been the rising star at hand on Friday, but one placed within a brightly shining firmament of our very own PBO. I grew up in Germany with the Oratorium recording of Karl Richter, with the Münchner Bach Orchester and soloists Gundula Janowitz, Fritz Wunderlich, Christa Ludwig and Franz Grass. The trumpet player was the extraordinary Maurice Andre, idolized by many. PBO’s Kris Kwapis struck me a force of nature as well, and clearly had a fan club in the audience.

Then there was the flute playing of Janet See, which was a wonder. There are lines in the oratorio where the flute plays the same extended phrases as the soloist; hers were magnetically attached to the voice, in on-set, termination, tempo and phrasing, without losing any fluidity. All this while she wasn’t able to see more than the back of the performer who was turned to the audience.

The woodwind section was strongly expressive and the cello held its own against all the rambunctious sounds around it, not an easy feat.

It is the orchestra as a whole, though, that I will likely remember, because they players have a liveliness and melded tone, a visibly engaged and friendly interaction, a joy at playing that brings home the point of all music: creating community of sorts. I take that over Karl Richter recordings, or any other ones for that matter, any time. We are so lucky to have them and their select visiting musicians for concerts in Portland.

Which brings me back to the poor music critic: he has to listen to all of these performances and intelligently compare them. Sixty-five years’ worth, as it turns out. Then again, it gives him the opportunity to come up with sentences like this: “The Dresden Kammerchor and vocal soloists fulfill Chailly’s ambition for unremitting leanness and breathtaking mobility, and yet my heart tends to sink under gymnastic survey and über-elegance.” Will I ever have the chutzpah to write like that?

Linked above is that terrific review by Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, from Gramophone. The choice for overall best recording was Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 2006 version of the Christmas Oratorio.

Linked below is my choice, Harnoncourt’s concert from 1982, for the simple reason that it lets you see the boys of the Tölzer Knabenchor. (Bonus:  Hanoncourt looks like a character out of a Dickens novel.)  Bach originally wrote this cycle for boys’ voices. The larynx of a boy is about 1/3 larger than that of a grown woman, able to produce a sound up to a maximum 5000 Hertz, more powerful and much richer in the higher registers. The Oratorio texts also implied an innocence much more easily captured by a young singer (as for example in the 29. duet Herr, Dein Mitleid, Dein Erbarmen.) In Bach’s Leipzig times a male alto was used but once. If nowadays sopranos or countertenors replace the boys’ voice it has to do more with the scarcity of eligible young singers than anything else.

And now I’ll have to turn to the dishes in my kitchen sink while croaking a joyful “Jauchzet, Frohlocket” at the top of my lungs….. it will be therapeutic during the darkness of these days.

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2 Responses.

  1. Sarah says:

    Thank you for the write up, however the performance was at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, not St Mary’s! -a chorister

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