Bach's Christmas Oratorio
A wreath of cantatas
by arwulf arwulf
From the December, 2017 issue
The music of Johann Sebastian Bach works wonders at any time of year. It can be especially comforting, though, when temperatures plummet and we who live and work in the north must contend with bitter winds, freezing rain, black ice, and drifting snow.
On December 8, Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan will bring Bach's Christmas Oratorio to Hill Auditorium. The concert will feature most but not all of the six-part work. (It was never intended to be performed or heard in one sitting, and in whole would take about three hours to perform.) In Bach, Maestro Suzuki has found his element, and the Collegium's recorded interpretations of Bach's complete sacred cantatas are internationally celebrated for their clarity, subtlety, and grace.
Bach was exceptionally adept at borrowing musical ideas from his own catalogue of works. His Christmas Oratorio is really a wreath of cantatas, richly laden with recycled materials drawn from festive secular works that he had previously penned for birthdays, name days, and coronations of wealthy titled aristocrats. Some of these secular cantatas are Handel-style allegorical dramas populated with characters from Greek antiquity.
One of them, composed for the birthday of an eleven-year-old prince, is called "Hercules at the Crossroads." From it Bach extracted a melody sung by a character representing Pleasure and retooled it as a tender lullaby for the infant Jesus that is prized as the loveliest aria in the entire oratorio. It has a lot in common with one of Bach's most popular pastoral airs, titled in English "Sheep May Safely Graze."
Hill Auditorium's renowned acoustics are perfectly suited for the Christmas Oratorio. Beautifully coordinated voices will permeate the space, floating upward past balconies to hover among the necklaces of lights that loop across the ceiling. The choir will sing choruses to comment upon the story being told, periodically altering the flow to deliver traditional slow-paced Lutheran chorales. Arias and recitatives will be sung by Indian soprano Sherezade Panthaki, German basso Dominik WOerner, and countertenor
Jay Carter and tenor Zachary Wilder, who both hail from North America.
Suzuki's period instrument players will accompany the singers with a heartwarming combination of trumpets, kettledrums, oboes, and flutes, backed by violin, cello, double bass, and harpsichord. Will Suzuki also play Hill Auditorium's Frieze Memorial Organ with its hermetically concealed 7,599 pipes? This remains to be seen, and hopefully heard. Get a good seat, wait for the lights to go down, and prepare to be thrilled by the voices and scintillating instrumentation. According to Bach biographer Philipp Spitta, it can make you feel as though you are gazing into a vault of stars.
[Originally published in December, 2017.]
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