The Canticum Novum Singers: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio
By: Jean Ballard Terepka
Canticum Novum Singers and Orchestra
On December 14, in the blue-gold, high and elegant space of St. Jean Baptiste Church, Harold Rosenbaum led the Canticum Novum Singers and the Artemis Chamber Ensemble in a well and happily received presentation of Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio. The performance, overall, was strong. Marvelous moments outshone and outnumbered occasional difficulties. The second half of the program was more consistently successful than the first; the closing movement was gorgeous.
Bach's Christmas Oratorio in its modern form – as Rosenbaum conducted it – is a far cry from the work that Bach composed. The six cantatas, written in 1734, were actually written for performance on six different days during Christmastide, from Christmas Day to Epiphany, in two different churches, by six slightly differently configured choirs and instrumental ensembles. As far as music historians know, the six cantatas were never performed again in Bach's lifetime. Bach could never have imagined the six pieces performed all together nor by as large a group of skilled professional musicians such as Rosenbaum led on December 14.
The opening chorus, “Jauchzet, frohlocket,” was authoritative, lively and celebratory. Brass and percussion were hearty; the chorus was polished. This introductory piece had the feel of a procession, a grand parade, an effective announcement that the story about to be told was, indeed, momentous.
Most of the actual storytelling throughout the work is carried by the Evangelist. Tenor Tommy Wazelle sang the narrative recitatives, achieving a first-rate blend of reporting and awe. Wazelle played his oratorio role as 'bearer of good news' with subtlety and flare.
Soprano Katherine Wessinger, baritone Jesse Blumberg and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo each sang many more arias, reflecting response and reflections on the Christmas story, than recitatives.
Wessinger used her clear, graceful voice to present nuanced and expressive accounts of prayer and spiritual astonishment. In her role as the Angel, her exhortation to the shepherds – and to all who wait for good tidings – to be unafraid was persuasive simply because of its beauty. Later in the oratorio, Wessinger's ponderings in “Flobst, mein Heiland” poignantly combined human uncertainty with prophetic confidence.
Blumberg sang his solos with confidence and aplomb. His declarations about the significance of the Christmastide events were dramatic and compelling.
Wessinger and Blumberg sang two duets, one in the first cantata and one in the fourth. Their first duet seemed insecure and undeveloped; the singers seemed to be singing parallel to each other, without mutual engagement. In contrast, their duet in the fourth cantata was beautifully sung: as their voices echoed, intertwined and anticipated each other’s musical ideas, the duet became a true dialogue and conversation.
Wessinger's voice is beautiful. Wazelle and Blumberg's voices are also very fine. They are not, however, surprising. Countertenor Costanzo's voice, in contrast, surprises: it is unexpectedly powerful. It is a huge voice. Costanzo's technical skills are dazzling. He has a huge range from pianissimo to fortissimo; his voice is tremendously supple. Costanzo seems to have an almost nonchalant ease with the particular demands of Baroque music. All this … and an intelligent musicality that makes sung text breathe.
Singing alone, Costanzo was gorgeous.
But the sheer largeness of Costanzo's voice, glorious in and of itself, presented a problem when he sang with the other soloists. His voice overpowered theirs: imbalance characterized the trio, “Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen” and weakened the composition's ability, by means of having three equal voices, to convey the most human qualities about waiting for goodness and salvation. In the future, Costanzo's evolving musicianship should enable him to control the volume of his voice when he performs with colleagues.
The Artemis Chamber Ensemble, usually so reliable, performed somewhat unevenly. In two instances, the musicians weren't quite together. Trumpets and horns were sometimes shaky. As with the soloists, however, the instrumentalists became better and better as the evening progressed.
In spite of the concert's occasional problems, two aspects of this performance contributed to its considerable overall strength.
First, the Canticum Novum Singers themselves were superb. Both the chorus as a whole and its individual sections presented their music with unerring accuracy and with natural responsiveness to each other, the orchestra, the soloists and their conductor.
Second, Rosenbaum's reading of the six single Christmas cantatas as a single oratorio was overarchingly intelligent: Rosenbaum takes texts seriously. Rosenbaum understands that Bach's genius as a choral composer lay in his translation of theology into musical sound.
The first three cantatas were filled with a sense of advent excitement: delicate glee about the coming glory and hushed awe at salvation's incarnation imbued the first part of the concert with tender happiness. The second part of the concert – the last three of the Christmas cantatas – contained the more dense theological material of the work, and Rosenbaum's complex, nuanced reading reflected this fact. The Christmas birth of Jesus cannot be celebrated without knowledge of the terrible execution that Jesus will endure before the Resurrection's glory.
Throughout the work, listeners familiar with both Christian theology and Bach's music can hear in several of the Christmas chorales the familiar “Passion Chorale” from Bach's own Passion According to St. Matthew. The theological core of the 1734 Christmas work is contained in the fourth cantata. Here, Bach and his librettist make the connection between Christmas and Easter explicit, and here, in performance, Rosenbaum's conducting elicited the best performance from the musicians he led.
By the conclusion of the evening, both musicians and audience experienced the magnificence of God's gift of peace and salvation. In the final exultant chorale, singers and instrumentalists alike, in all their complex harmonic and rhythmic roles, functioned as a single whole to sing God's glory.
The Canticum Novum Singers: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 (December 14, 2012)
The Church of St. Jean Baptiste, 184 East 76th Street, in Manhattan
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