BSO's "Christmas Oratorio": Bach Humbug?

Andris Nelsons with Carolyn Sampson, Christine Rice, Sebastian Kohlhepp & Andre Schuen
(photo: Winslow Townson)

If you're feeling satiated and saturated by the familiar plethora of seasonal offerings, from A Christmas Carol to The Nutcracker to The Messiah and beyond, beloved as they all are, there's an alternative choice that awaits you in the form of a performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in which to revel. While Scrooge and sugar plum fairies (and even The Messiah, albeit with no truly specific relevance to the festivities, frankly more accurately considered an Easter piece) have their valid and treasured plateaus in the hierarchy of holiday celebrations, one may justly hope for a wee bit of variety on one's plate, and Symphony Hall might now be the very place; was it a good seasonal choice, or a piece of Bach humbug? Happily, the work is perfect Christmas fare, and there is just one word for the Friday afternoon BSO performance of the Christmas Oratorio: sublime.

Interestingly, the BSO's Andris Nelsons had never before conducted the Bach, but it is now part of the orchestra's second annual Leipzig Week in Boston. The BSO itself hasn't played the piece in about six decades (last in 1960) and even that wasn't a complete version. Due to the size of the Symphony Hall stage (and the size of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus), the orchestra was scaled up in size, with Nelsons described as choosing to emphasize the music itself rather than a rigid adherence to how the work has traditionally been performed.

Bach wrote his 1734 oratorio in six cantatas to be performed beginning Christmas Day for six consecutive days, utilizing some of his previous compositions (thus qualifying for their description as parody music, appropriating already existing themes or lyrics). The actual librettist is not known with certainty. The orchestra is configured slightly differently for each of the six cantatas, over a period of about three hours. The cantatas employ accepted continuity: the birth of Christ, the annunciation of the birth to the shepherds, the adoration by the shepherds, the circumcision, the journey of the Magi, and the adoration by the Magi. (An earlier version depicting the flight into Egypt was deemed of inappropriate context by Bach, and altered).

The concert featured Soprano Carolyn Sampson, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, tenor Sebastian Kohlhepp and baritone Andre Schuen. All four were terrific, Kohlhepp providing the bulk of the singing as the Narrator (the Evangelist St. Luke). The stars of the production, however, were the members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under the direction of James Burton. They were as rapturously fine as could be hoped for, and Nelsons has never been better, drawing out every possible nuance from his superb orchestra. Also on hand was a small off-stage children's “echo” chorus. The three hour concert just flew by.

Word has it that one cannot walk more than a block or two in Germany during this season without encountering countless performances of this piece. It's the equivalent of our ubiquitous Messiah. Here's one vote for making this an annual musical celebration. Handel's work may be more familiar and beloved for the moment, but, needless to say, the Christmas Oratorio may be said to have found a welcome home here in Boston's Symphony Hall, now and in future Christmases.

The program will be repeated once more on Saturday evening December 1st.

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