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Music Review

From Handel and Haydn, a lean, lively take on Bach

Grant Llewellyn conducted the Handel and Haydn Society in Bach's 'Christmas Oratorio.' Grant Llewellyn conducted the Handel and Haydn Society in Bach's "Christmas Oratorio." (Stu Rosner)
Email|Print| Text size + By David Perkins
Globe Correspondent / December 21, 2007

The performance of J.S. Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" by the Handel and Haydn Society on Wednesday had many good things going for it, but let's get to the problem right away. The use of 16 voices - four on a part - follows the notion, revived in the 1970s, that 16 singers were on Bach's payroll in Leipzig, and thus the likely number for his cantata performances. Whether he ever supplemented these with amateurs for his bigger works is debated by scholars. Nevertheless, for period performers, less is always considered more.

It's a matter of taste, and I admit mine inclines to richness, to velvet rather than tweed. But a fact must be faced: Sixteen voices echoing in a cathedral like the Thomaskirche make a different sound than 16 in Jordan Hall, a bright acoustic with very little reverberation. Besides, Bach himself was apparently frustrated by the number of singers he was able to employ. Wouldn't the correct "period" number, then, be the number he wished for, if only we knew it, rather than the number he had? Such is the slippery slope of authenticity.

The 16 H&H singers were disciplined and accurate; they simply sounded faint. And, as a result, much of the work's joyful energy didn't make it across the stage. Meanwhile, the soloists sang with full tone and generous vibrato - no concessions to period style there. This gave the performance something of a split-view, with the soloists in living color, as it were, and the chorus in black and white. One could express the same regrets for the society's recent "Messiah" in Symphony Hall, where another dozen voices would have made the 36-voice chorus rounder and fuller, and a dramatic force equal to the soloists. Bach and Handel were eminently practical composers. Shouldn't we think again about what works best?

This season's two performances of the "Christmas Oratorio" was the Handel and Haydn's first visitation of the work in a decade, and only its seventh since 1877. There is a reason for this rarity. It's not the "Messiah." There is no narrative. It consists of six cantatas, each meant for a church service, and not meant to be performed straight through in the concert hall. Finally, there is some bland (for Bach) celebratory music written earlier for royal anniversaries that Bach recast and wrapped around more original, subtle, and heartfelt music about the Christmas story. There are wonderful moments, but principal conductor Grant Llewellyn chose to conduct only the first three cantatas - and that was enough.

There was much to enjoy. Llewellyn's gently rolling beat kept things alert and moving. There were beautiful obbligato turns from the orchestra's flutist Christopher Krueger and first trumpet Jesse Levine. Among the soloists, Aaron Sheehan, as the Evangelist, had an unforced, personable sound, and managed the fiendishly difficult aria, "Frohe, Hirten," easily. Bass Philip Cutlip lightened his voice, a bit wooly at first, for the exquisite duet with soprano Kristen Watson, "Herr, dein Mitleid." And mezzo-soprano Krista River sang with a warm, even legato line in her arias, notably "Schlafe, mein Liebster," a tender lullaby over the Christ child that expresses a Christmas message that is simple and universal.

Handel and Haydn Society, Christmas Oratorio

At: Jordan Hall, Wednesday

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