Thursday, January 5, 2017

Bach’s genius revealed in Christmas choral work

Some of the sopranos in the 2016 Christmas Oratorio performance. Photo credit Ian Thomson.
Christmas Oratorio
Friday 16 December 2016, Dunedin Town Hall

From start to finish – right through the six cantatas which comprise Bach’s Christmas Oratorio – the performance of this late-Baroque masterpiece by City Choir Dunedin and the Dunedin Symphony Orchestra in Dunedin Town Hall on 16 December 2016 brought home to an appreciative audience the composer’s inspired inventiveness in all its breadth and depth.

The jubilant opening chorus of Cantata 1 is as taxing as it is brilliant, but both choir and orchestra proved fully equal to the challenge – with trumpets and timpani adding zest to woodwind and strings – and were no less incisive in the similarly brilliant final chorus of Cantata 6. Great stamina and assured technique are needed to cope with the relentless demands of Bach’s music, and conductor David Burchell deserves much credit for getting the very best out of his choral and orchestral forces, and for keeping the music’s unflagging momentum going throughout.

As the music’s story progressed from Christmas Day to Epiphany, the vocal soloists were also continually tested and never found wanting. Tenor Iain Tetley, as narrator of the story itself, led the way, first for alto Claire Barton, then for bass Robert Tucker, and finally for soprano Lois Johnston, and in their arias all four commented – sometimes separately, sometimes jointly – on the implications of Jesus’ miraculous birth and its sequels. Highlights were Barton’s meditative “Lock, my heart, this blessed wonder” in Cantata 3 with Tessa Petersen’s superb violin solo, Johnston’s optimistic “My Saviour, does thy name instil” (ably echoed by Caroline Burchell) in Cantata 4 with Alison Dunlop’s lovely oboe solo, Tetley’s sprightly “I will live only to glorify thee” in Cantata 4 with its intricate string accompaniment, and Tucker’s sonorous “Great Lord and mighty King” in Cantata 1 with its rich scoring for trumpet, flute and strings.

In these and many other cases the orchestra’s stylish and sensitive contributions were crucial in delineating the music’s changing moods. But this review must give a parting accolade to the choir. Superhuman music like Bach’s demands something more than mere competence from voices and instruments, and the choir’s tonal and rhythmic precision in delivering the composer’s message – both in the complex counterpoint of choruses like “Glory be to God” in Cantata 2 and in the plainer chord-based style of chorales like “Be joyful, meanwhile” in Cantata 3 – was obviously the result of constant practice and careful attention to detail. Congratulations!

J. Donald Cullington

About the reviewer:
A native of northern England, J. Donald Cullington graduated in Classics at Cambridge before qualifying as a musician (with a BMus at Durham, a DMus at Edinburgh, etc.). His musical career - as pianist, organist, choirtrainer and teacher - spans five decades, and has included four years (1975-78) as Director of Music at St Paul's Cathedral in Dunedin, and twenty-eight years in Northern Ireland as initiator, developer and (for many years) Head of the Music Department at the University of Ulster.

Donald Cullington also reviewed the 2008 performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio.

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