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Bach, Christmas Oratorio:  Les Arts Florissants. William Christie (conductor). Marie Arnet (soprano), Tim Mead (counter-tenor), Nicholas Watts, (tenor, Evangelist), Marcel Beekman, (tenor), Markus Werba (bass). Barbican Hall London, 15.12.2006 (GD)




Apart from an expected interval between the third and fourth cantatas, which are part of the six cantatas that comprise the ‘Christmas Oratorio’, Christie took us through Bach’s great work, from beginning to end, with a tremendous sweep and sense of structural coherence. Overall Bach focuses here on the nativity story and its message of celebration and Christian redemption. It was enormously refreshing to experience this sincere and resplendent homage to ‘Weihnachts’ in the context of our age where Christmas is increasingly banalised, standardized and commodified.


As with the B Minor Mass, the Christmas Oratorio has been historically viewed as somewhat controversial in that it incorporates from earlier, in the case of the Oratorio, mostly secular works of Bach. In our own ecologically aware ‘green’ age we have become more tolerant of ‘parodies’, incorporations’ and ‘plagiarisms’. One also has to remember that Bach was a pre-eminently practical, pragmatic composer. As tonight’s concerts notes imply, Bach, with his enormous workload (especially as the Cantor or St Thomas’s in Leipzig), would have kept an archive of previous works as a kind of resource- bank to incorporate into later commissions which he either knew about or thought were likely. Here Bach would not have been particularly bothered about transcribing from a secular text like ‘Tonet ihr Pauken’, written to celebrate the birthday of the Electress of Saxony and Queen of Poland in 1734. Bach, being economic enough to produce music which would suit both sacred and secular texts/events Bach incorporates and re-works (text and tonal/harmonic nuance) six cantatas for each of the first six days of Christmas up to the Feast of Epiphany.


An aspect of Bach’s genius not often commented upon is the incredibly effective way he can re-work and incorporate into a totally effective whole, as when an inner unity stemming from the  D major register opens the first festive chorus ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket auf, preiset die Tage’ with its unsurpassed writing for timpani and three trumpets.Throughout the evening, Christie and his excellent ‘Les Arts Florissants’ forces emphasised this wonderful inner-unity and structural coherence with sustained conviction. Particularly compelling were the twenty-five strong chorus who managed a plethora of different styles from the stretto/canonic to the wonderful incorporation of chorales from the St Matthew Passion (depicting the telos of Christ’s Passion which is pre-figured in the nativity doxology.) Bach also incorporates chorales from unknown (lost) earlier works, as in ‘Pfui dich, wie fein zerbrichst du den Tempel’, which some scholars have cited  as belonging to the St Mark Passion, which has only come down to us in fragments.


It is impossible to adequately cite every splendour which abounded in this performance. But particularly notable were counter-tenor Tim Mead’s delivery of  ‘Bereite dich, Zion’ in the opening cantata; Christie gave a wonderfully florid and flowing reading of the beautiful ‘Pastoral Sinfonia’ which opens the Second Cantata (the ‘Pastoral Sinfonia, together with much of  the elaborate recitivo writing, and the ‘turba’ (crowd) choruses, was written anew for the Christmas Oratorio). That Bach wrote such a beautiful and elaborate Pastoral Sinfonia is surely a commentary on how highly he rated the work. Mostly the solo contributions were of a very high vocal quality, with Nicholas Watts as a consistently fine Evangelist. One piece that didn’t quite come off was the duet between soprano and bass, ‘Herr, dein Mitleid, den Erbamen’ from the Third Cantata, which deals with freedom and grace through the Saviour’s compassion -  Markus Werba’s bass here had an uncomfortable, rather strident, edge, which did not sit well with Maria Arnet’s quite light soprano. This should have been better rehearsed. But it was the only major glitch in a very wide ranging three hour work! There were also some lapses in the overall excellent contribution from the three trumpets…although it is rather churlish to make too much of this when ‘period’ single valve instruments are being used.


Also notable (the most compelling I have heard) was the resplendent contribution of the two baroque horns in the noble, slightly bucolic sounding, chorus ‘Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben’ which initiates the Fourth Cantata, and celebrates the ‘Feast of the Circumcision of Christ’. Christie, like Harnoncourt, Koopmann, Eliot Gardiner and Rene Jacobs, and unlike the old German Kapell-meisters who developed from the Nineteenth century, knows how to delineate the dance element in these wonderful pieces, which, of course, cross-fertilizes with the superb instrumental/vocal lucidity which is a sine qua non of the best period performances.


Marie Arnet came into her own in the magnificent aria ‘Nur ein wink von seinen Handen’ from the Sixth (concluding) Cantata ‘For the Feast of Epiphany’; this aria tells of the Saviour’s empathy with finite mortality, its vulnerability and overcoming,  vanquishing of  Satan through the mediating power of Christ, and the awesome power of  God the Father. Here Arnet delivered every florid vocal nuance with textual clarity and confidence in vocal diversity and projection. In pieces like this Christie totally understands, again, the rhythmic and dance like contours…a superb example of absolute rapport between soloist and orchestra, also a superb demonstration, from Christie, of baroque nuance and instrumental, cantabile shaping.


The Terzetto from the Fifth Cantata, ‘For the Sunday after New Year’, ‘Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen’ for soprano, counter-tenor and tenor, which comments on the telos of the Saviour’s redemption of man, went particularly well in terms of harmony, which here ingeniously incorporates a descending chorale like figure which has a remarkable resemblance to the opening phrase of the ‘Et in unum Dominum’ in the ‘Symbolum Nicenum’ from the Mass in B Minor. 


Marcel Beekman’s finest aria was ‘Num mogt ihr stolzen feinde schrecken’, telling of the guarantees against evil and Satan if one internalizes the love of the Saviour. This finely delineated and sung aria leads (thematically and textually) to the resplendent closing chorale; ‘Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen’, which compounds many of the themes, particularly in the second half of the work, to do with the victory of Christ and the redemption of man through the shattering of Satan, evil, temptation, and all those things that do not exist in Paradise. Bach belongs to that very small group of truly ‘great’ composers (among them Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven Verdi) who can compose the perfect ending…I don’t mean perfect in just the formal, structural sense, or in the Wagnerian sense of a literal apotheosis of themes, but in the sense of understanding an ending as a perfect (even relatively simple, as here) summation of all that has gone before in this magnificent work. As Pascal (commenting on Aristotle) once put it ; ‘the ‘summum bonum’ is the principle of the inclusion of all values derived from the highest or supreme good’, for Pascal this could be accomplished in a word, or a phrase. Bach understood this principle absolutely…so absolutely that it is probably not possible to reinscribe, or intone such an understanding today. But as far as intoning is concerned Christie and his admirable forces, through the genius of Bach, came quite close to reaching that level of understanding tonight.

Without wanting to sound churlish I must mention one extra-musical distraction tonight which should not be allowed to repeat itself. After the first cantata a number of late-comers were allowed entrance. Christie obviously was aware of this as he turned around to check the level of interruption; he presumably wanted to go straight in to the beautiful ‘Pastoral Sinfonia’. One young woman couldn’t find her seat and was walking around in confusion for some time, after the ‘Pastoral Sinfonia’ had started! Could the Barbican management not devise a more efficient strategy of entry so as to avoid what happened tonight?




Geoff Diggines






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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)