Bach’s Christmas Oratorio Overshadowed by Praetorius and Pärt

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Bach, Pärt, Praetorius (arr. Sandström): Malin Hartelius (soprano), Christina Daletska (alto), Benjamin Bruns (tenor), Ludwig Mittelhammer (bass), Zürcher Sing-Akademie, Orchestra La Scintilla / Florian Helgath (conductor and chorus master), Kirche St. Jakob, Zurich 7.12.2018. (JR) 

Bach Christmas Oratorio, Parts I, II and III  BWV 248

Pärt Magnificat

Praetorius (arr. Sandström) – ‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’

The first decision for any choir putting on a performance of the Christmas Oratorio is which of the six parts to perform. All six make perfect musical sense, of course, but it is a long three-hour slog for all the musicians (even with an interval) and a test of endurance for the audience (especially if on hard wooden church seating). Perform only part, but which parts?  The Zürcher Sing-Akademie opted for the first three parts (with all da capo repeats) but interspersed them neatly with two pieces for a cappella choir, one by Pärt, the other a modern arrangement of a well-known hymn by Praetorius.

It has to be said that Bach’s Christmas Oratorio lacks both the emotional weight and grandeur of the Passions and also lacks the might and magnificence of the B minor Mass. Written for Christmas 1734, it’s a hotchpotch of pieces from several of Bach’s earlier compositions, including three secular cantatas. Bach’s collaborator, rewriting the text to fit the Christmas story, was Christian Friedrich Henrici, also known as Picander. Each of the six parts of the oratorio was originally intended for performance on one of the major feast days during the Christmas period; it was never intended to be presented as a whole or split into two equal parts.

Apart from the very jolly ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket’ opening chorus in Part I, the remaining chorales, choruses and arias do not have a particularly ‘Christmassy’ feel; it is only the story and the work’s title that leads choirs to sing it so regularly over Christmas.

The soloists were excellent: German tenor Benjamin Bruns made a very sound Evangelist, placed mid-orchestra, crisp diction, unwavering intonation. Young Bavarian bass Ludwig Mittelhammer was unknown to me and was the vocal discovery of the night. His mellow tone and stage presence were most engaging. Malin Hartelius’s soprano sparkled, especially in the role of the Angel. Kristina Hammarstrom was indisposed at the last minute, so in stepped a local resident, Ukranian alto Christina Daletska. Her warm tones and affecting expressiveness were most pleasing, in particular her upper register in her final aria ‘Schliesse, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder’. Daletska also captivated in the sweet lullaby ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster, geniesse der Ruh’.

I counted 31 in the choir, Zurich’s only professional choir, almost equally divided between the four registers. They made a very homogeneous sound, though the reverberant acoustics of the large church were challenging, and the sopranos, right behind the orchestra and below a row of sonorous basses, were not always audible. Diction was crisp, intonation spot-on, as to be expected.

In between Parts I and II we heard the choir sing Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat, in his usual tintinnabuli style: it was riveting and the choir seemed somehow more involved than in the Bach. The same could also be said of their second interspersion, between Parts II and III, a modern (1990) arrangement for two a cappella choirs by Jan Sandström of Michael Praetorius’ 1609 Christmas carol ‘Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen’ (‘Lo, how a rose e’er blooming’), the rose being a reference to the Virgin Mary. The song featured a great deal of humming and gave everyone the goosebumps, including my immediate neighbour in the audience, Swedish soprano Lisa Larsson.

The period orchestra was La Scintilla, based at Zurich’s Opera House, and formed there following Harnoncourt’s Monteverdi cycle in the 1970s and Mozart cycle in the 1980s. The valve-less trumpets, who stood for their fanfares, were a glory as was the leader, Ada Pesch.

There were two encores: a chorale from a later part of the Oratorio itself and the moving  ‘Dona nobis pacem’ section from the B minor Mass.

John Rhodes

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