Carmel Bach Festival, July 14, 2013

Christmas on Bastille Day

By Scott MacClelland

Sunday afternoon, Goodwin conducted Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. If you love the great vocal works of Bach but have not tackled this one for a while, you may be forgiven for experiencing several, even many, déjà-vu moments. Truth is, these six cantatas that tell the story of Jesus as a newborn are, musically speaking, parodies—imitations drawn from earlier settings but with applicable texts for the narrative. Designed to be performed over the span of  two weeks—from Christmas Day to Epiphany—a single go, like this one, can challenge the concertgoer not accustomed to marathon listening. Neither does it extol the tragic gravitas of the Passion story. Yet Bach, always eager to surprise his listeners with variety and surprise, makes it work, if in a less organic telling.

Following the festive opening of the first of the six cantatas, the initial surprise—or shock—comes in the fourth number when, without warning, the chorus sings the crucifixion chorale, fitted with text appropriate to the narrative. Only hours old and the infant Jesus’ final agony is foretold: to fulfill scripture this flesh must inevitably be mortified. (The tune reappears in the finale of the sixth cantata.) The syncopated bass aria, Grosser Herr, bounced along nicely with solo trumpet obbligato.

The pastoral second cantata featured pairs of oboes, alto (d’amore) and tenor (da caccia) throughout, while the bucolic opening sinfonia was recalled in the final chorale. The chorus opened and closed the third with the stentorian Herrscher des Himmels (Lord of heaven) featuring festive trumpets and drums. Within this frame was a portrait of Mary reflecting darkly on the disturbing messages conveyed to her following the shepherds’ encounter with angels proclaiming the coming of Christ.

Two valveless horns—again already with the cracked notes!—launched the fourth cantata in a pastoral 6/8 meter. Yet, the piece contains one of the most endearing moments of all, the soprano aria, Flöst, mein Heiland, with its echoes, on solo oboe and one of the Chorale sopranos backstage. Rarely is Bach so playful and cheeky. And what an incredible new festival oboist is Gonzalo Ruiz, from Argentina!

A centerpiece of the fifth cantata is the extended dialog between soprano, alto and tenor, an anxious Q&A borne of Herod’s fear of a new “king” anointed by three magi who have followed a supernova to a manger in Bethlehem. The final cantata, framed by trumpets and drums, carries the story up to just before the family makes its run to safety in Egypt. Thank you Paul Goodwin for keeping this long pageant in such propulsive motion.