Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Joyful Adoration

Christmas Oratorio by J. S. Bach

top left: Markus Schäfer; top right: Randall Scarlata; bottom: Tölzer Knabenchor

Tölzer Knabenchor, with boy soloists
(Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, director)
Markus Schäfer, tenor
Randall Scarlata, bass-baritone
Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra
(Martin Haselböck, conductor)
The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California
Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review by Rodney Punt

As sacred Christmas music goes, the popularity of Handel’s Messiah over J. S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is undisputed. Messiah’s lyric-dramatic impact is compelling from the first encounter. Bach’s pietistic nativity setting takes a few hearings to make its case. In its many intimate and tender numbers, however, it casts a special glow. Where Handel’s infant Messiah has governance immediately thrust on his shoulders, Bach’s baby Jesus is off-duty for the Christmas season. It’s his time to simply be adored.

And adore him they did last Sunday evening at Santa Monica’s Broad Stage. Musica Angelica’s Baroque Orchestra was joined by vocal soloists and the visiting Tölzer Knabenchor from Munich, Germany, in a performance of four of the six strung-together cantatas that comprise Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Intended for each to be performed on different feast days between Christmas and Epiphany, the oratorio’s single evening performance was made more practical by dropping cantatas 4 and 5, those least integral to the narrative. In context, the loss did not detract.

As amended, the drama is propelled in a series of choruses, recitatives and arias that depict the birth of Jesus, the annunciation to the shepherds, their later adoration of the child, visitations of the Magi (Epiphany), and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt to escape Herod’s capture. Contemplative chorales, a collection of Lutheranism’s greatest hits, provide perspectives on the miraculous goings-on.

The evening’s special performance element was the all-male Tölzer Knabenchor, whose young lads proclaimed most of the dramatic narrative in their slender but sturdy voices. Some 20 boys singing soprano and alto were balanced by 12 bright-timbered adults (alumni of the group) on tenor and bass. The choir has a long and distinguished pedigree and it shows. Exquisite phrasing, open vocal production, and attentive textual expression were their hallmarks on this evening.

Of the boy soloists, soprano Andreas Mörwald carried the main duties, secure in his vocal production and musicianship. Ditto soprano Daniel Krähmer as the Angel, who had a dose of extra-terrestial power in the delivery of his important message to the shepards. Alto soloist Alexander Rampp had a nice vocal quality, but was somewhat score-bound and registered less effectively in the hall’s dry acoustic, particularly when coupled with the similarly pitched oboes.

Bach’s evangelist must project other-worldly calm while engaging in high-register vocal gymnastics. Markus Schäfer’s full-bodied lyric tenor met the test and then some, managing to be both spiritually ethereal and dramatically earthy.

Randall Scarlata’s pliant bass-baritone negotiated his outings nimbly, as in the famous aria, Grosser Herr, o starker König (Mighty Lord, strongest king), and was a sensitive partner in duets with the light-voiced solo boys, but his tone thinned considerably as it descended the range.

The orchestra was a factory of colorful sounds. In purely instrumental outings (especially the lovely Sinfonia that opens Cantata 2) and those with vocal forces, flocks of bleating sheep made their presence known in the oboes and bassoons. Shepherd flutes lovingly abided in their fields by night. Star-bright violins spun halos above while the low-lying violone sprinkled sonic incense within the manger. Valveless trumpets and leather-tonged timpani made radiant noises in the celebratory moments, their sweet showers drowning to the root any drought of faith, hope, and charity in Christendom’s happiest season.

Conductor Martin Haselböck knew just when to move the whole procession along - his general penchant was for briskness - and when to take a deep-breathed moment in the familiar chorales to reflect on the meaning of it all. In an evening filled with joyous music-making, those reassuring chorales somehow managed to both seal the message and steal the show.


Additional performance: A last-minute add-on performance of Bach motets by the Tölzer Knabenchor under the direction of their long-time leader, Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, took place the next night at the nearby First Methodist Church. A review will follow.

Baroque sound production and modern acoustics: The typical Baroque church choir was all-male. From a modern perspective, using boys on soprano and alto parts rather than women lightens overall vocal production, just as period instruments, including gut-stringed viols, soften orchestral textures. In Bach's era, sound production for these more delicate music forces was enhanced by the warm acoustics of parish churches which carried along and reinforced them in their relatively large spaces. (It was easy to imagine this evening’s choir and instrumental combination meeting the fondest expectations of old Bach himself in his St. Thomas or St. Nikolas churches in Leipzig.)

A critical element in a satisfying modern performance of delicate-sounding Baroque period forces is the space in which it is produced. Acoustics continue to be an issue at the Broad Stage. While a church acoustic is neither possible nor desirable in a modern performance hall, a modicum of warmth and resonance is. From a good location in the ground-floor orchestra section before intermission, the sound in the Broad Stage was neither clear nor warm. Moving upstairs for the second half improved the clarity of sound production but not its warmth. More on this issue in a future posting.