Saturday, January 3, 2015

A mixed Bach set from H&H

Scott Allen Jarrett, Sonja DuToit Tengblad, and the musicians of H&H. Photo: James Doyle

It's little known outside musical circles that Handel and Haydn offers a second Christmas concert every season, centered on the great J.S. Bach. And if the Society's annual Messiah remains something of a musical constant, their "Bach Christmas" is always a variation on a theme - not just because Bach wrote so very much sacred music to choose from, but also because other composers of his period often find their way onto the program.

Indeed this year we heard only the fourth (Fallt hit Danken, fallt hit Loben) of the six cantatas that together comprise the famous "Christmas Oratorio" of 1734.  Elsewhere guest conductor Scott Allen Jarrett (of Boston University and the Back Bay Chorale) programmed an earlier Bach effort from the Christmas season of 1723 (the composer's first year in Liepzig) as well as sacred and seasonal music from Victoria, Scarlatti, Corelli and others.

There was a loose sense of historical development to Jarrett's sequence, but also a lively and imaginative variety to his choices and staging: the concert featured a charming appearance by H&H's very youngest singers (from the Society's Vocal Program Youth Chorus) and the chorale was often deployed creatively across the stage and even the gallery. But alas, the performances themselves at times seemed to vary with the program. A few leading lights in both the chorus and orchestra were missing this time around, and their absence was sometimes missed by this reviewer.  The horn section, for instance, was composed almost entirely of fresh faces, who I'm afraid sometimes garbled what I admit are punishingly difficult parts (as Bach pushed the brass of his day toward something close to chromaticism). But the strings were also inconsistent, and the Concerto Grosso (Op. 6, No. 6) from Corelli disappointed; intonations slid slightly in sustained passages, tempi were uneven, and the performance felt unfocused.

Of course Jarrett is best known as a choral conductor - so perhaps it's no surprise that his work with the H&H chorus was stronger, and revealed both a truly lyrical sensibility and a welcome attention to detail (diction was clear throughout - even in the German). Indeed, you could argue that the concert peaked early, with a truly rapturous rendition of Tomas Luis de Victoria's Alma Redemptoris Mater. Here the soaring vocal lines were both plaintively sumptuous and precisely rendered, and thus the grand architecture of the piece rose before us like the vaults of a gothic cathedral. The luminous Sonja DuToit Tengblad (above), who by now has emerged as something of a local vocal star, likewise dazzled in a sweet (if not highly individualized) reading of Scarlatti's Christmas Cantata, and the chorus enchanted again in two settings of the text "Es its win Ros' entsprungen" ("A rose has sprung from a tender root") by Melchior Vulpius and Michael Praetorius.

But I can almost hear you asking - how was the Bach?  Well, by and large it was superb. Unfortunately, one soloist struggled, but others were in fine voice, and the chorus often captured that sense of genuine joy that is the buried essence of all Bach's Christmas writing. Bass Bradford Gleim excelled in the earlier of the two cantatas, Dazu its erschienen der Sonn Gottes ("For this reason the Son of God appeared"),  but was then perhaps eclipsed by fellow bass Donald Wilkinson, who, backed by buoyant playing from the oboes, brought an eloquent power to the recitatives of Fallt hit Danken, fallt hit Loben ("Fall with thanks, fall with praise"). Best of all were Jacquelyn Stucker and Brenna Wells, who brought ripe color, and an almost droll tone, to the the delightful duet Flösst mein Heiland ("My savior, does your name instill").  They insured that this particular musical Christmas pageant closed on a high note indeed.

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