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MUSIC REVIEW

Handel and Haydn Society celebrates Bach and a few contemporaries

By Harlow Robinson
Globe Correspondent / December 18, 2010

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The music of Johann Sebastian Bach is nearly as crucial to Christmas as Santa Claus, Salvation Army bell ringers, and eggnog. So it’s no surprise that Boston audiences have been hearing a lot of Bach lately. The venerable Handel and Haydn Society added to the abundance on Thursday evening in Jordan Hall with “A Bach Christmas,’’ an enjoyable fruit basket of seasonal (and not-so-seasonal) selections by the master and some of his contemporaries conducted by John Finney, the associate conductor and chorus master.

Of the 11 pieces on the program, only two, both cantatas, were composed by Bach, and only one of them for the Christmas season: the Cantata No. 122 (“The Newly Born, the Tiny Child’’). The other, Cantata No. 140 (“Sleepers, Awake’’), is one of Bach’s most popular, but, surprisingly enough, had never been performed by the society over the course of its long history.

Bach scored both works for an instrumental ensemble including three oboes (or recorders), bassoon, plus strings, continuo (here, organ), chorus, and soloists. The society’s small chorus (12 singers) for the most part acquitted itself well, although more power would have been welcome from the sopranos in the opening chorale of “Sleepers, Awake.’’ Soprano Teresa Wakim and bass Nikolas Nackley brought a fine measured passion and diction to the familiar duet-dialogue between a Soul and Jesus, but their ensemble with the violin soloist suffered from some intonation problems. Maestro Finney provided an entertaining introduction to the Cantata No. 122, showing how Bach cleverly manipulates the choral tune in a trio section (performed by alto Kit Emory, soprano Susan Consoli, and tenor Ryan Turner) accompanied by chorus.

Oboes starred in both Bach cantatas and in another piece lacking Christmas credentials, the Concerto for Three Oboes and Three Violins, by George Philip Telemann. Oboists Stephen Hammer, Kathleen Staten, and Owen Watkins played with elegant lyricism, especially in the dance-like third movement. Here and throughout the evening, Finney conducted crisply, with a keen understanding of the Baroque style.

Besides these three substantial gifts, the concert offered some small stocking-stuffers by Dieterich Buxtehude, Michael Praetorius, Heinrich Schutz, and Johann Hermann Schein. All lived and worked within 200 miles of each other — and Bach — in the German cities of Lubeck, Magdeburg, Leipzig, Weimar, and Dresden. Buxtehude’s earlier setting of the same Christmas text Bach used in his Cantata No. 122 came as a special year-end bonus.

Harlow Robinson can be reached at harlo@mindspring.com.

A BACH CHRISTMAS Presented by the Handel and Haydn Society

At: Jordan Hall, Thursday