by Michael Caruso
Matthew Glandorf conducted Choral Arts Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Bach Collegium, and a bevy of local vocal soloists in a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” Saturday, Dec. 31. The concert, which spanned 4 to 8 p.m. with an hour-long intermission in the middle to get a bite to eat, was heard in the Episcopal Cathedral Church of the Savior in West Philadelphia. It was attended by a good 500 music-lovers who heard much admirable music-making.
Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” is well known for not being an oratorio in the classic sense of George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” – perhaps the single most popular piece of sacred choral music ever composed. The six cantatas Bach composed for Christmas through Epiphany, Dec. 25 through Jan. 6, during the liturgical year of 1734-35 while he was music director for the German city of Leipzig were strung together as an oratorio after his death in 1750. That they are rarely performed complete in concert form outside of Germany is a testament to their not working altogether well as a unified piece of music.
Bach’s choral writing in the “Christmas Oratorio” is stunning and his instrumental scoring is among his most colorful. The solo vocal writing, however, especially when compared to Handel’s in “Messiah,” is functional when delineating the text but only rarely inspired in the sense of lyrical beauty. The best solo movements are those composed for the recitatives sung by the Evangelist, a part traditionally given to a high tenor.
As a result, the six cantatas covering the Birth of Christ on Christmas Day, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus, the Journey of the Magi, and the Adoration of the Magi begin to wear a little thin by their conclusion. One begins to note a degree of sameness that the operatically gifted Handel avoided in “Messiah.”
All of this makes Glandorf’s exemplary conducting of his vocal, choral and instrumental forces Saturday afternoon and evening all the more noteworthy. If, indeed, the finest movements in “Christmas Oratorio” are its choruses, then Glandorf was appropriately at his best in them. He elicited textural clarity from his choristers that enabled him to project the score’s peerless counterpoint alongside a potency of amplitude that delivered the drama of the narrative. He was no less successful leading the Bach Collegium of period instruments. The woodwinds sang with intimate sweetness while the strings were both supple and substantial. Concertmaster Rebecca Harris and harpsichordist Leon Schelhase were particular standouts.
Tenor James Reese, one of the professional core singers at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill and a member of The Crossing, sang splendidly as the Evangelist. He declaimed the texts taken from the Gospels of Saints Matthew, Luke and John that detail the story of Christ’s birth with intensity and sensitivity, rhythmic vitality and lyrical flexibility, spirituality and eloquence. His German diction was crystalline yet elegant, and he reached his high notes with exquisite ease. Most impressive was his ability to shift from the short, clipped phrases of the recitatives to the longer lines of his one aria with interpretive mastery.
The concert’s two soprano soloists gave equally memorable performances. Plymouth Meeting’s Jessica Beebe sang with shimmering clarity of tone and precision of phrasing, employing just the right amount of vibrato for expression within stylistic authenticity. Chestnut Hill’s Rebecca Myers sang with creamy brilliance. West Mount Airy alto Jenifer Smith projected both tonal warmth and unshakeable strength from the top of her range to the bottom. And basses Jean Bernard Cerin and Robert Eisentrout sang in burnished tones and focused phrasing.
Although the Episcopal Cathedral is mercilessly lugubrious in appearance, its acoustics are adequate if not compelling. Which is why I hope Glandorf will consider moving the Bach Festival’s “major score of the season” to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, next year. St. Paul’s has the space – it accommodated 600 for its own Advent Lessons & Carols – its acoustics are excellent, it’s an architectural masterpiece, and it is very nearly the same size as Bach’s church in Leipzig.
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