Christmas Oratorio (J.S.Bach)

Christmas Oratorio (J.S.Bach)


University of Western Australia Choral Society

Winthrop Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn 

Unlike Handel’s Messiah which, for many choristers and concertgoers, is inextricably associated with Xmas (even though barely a quarter of it relates to the Nativity story), Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is entirely concerned with events surrounding the birth of Christ.

Because Handel’s masterpiece is so frequently mounted in Perth, it is ingrained in the musical psyche of many, if not most, choristers who might well be able to sing much of it from memory.

Not so the Christmas Oratorio which, unaccountably (because it is one of the most meaningful and sheerly beautiful meditations on the Nativity), is only very rarely heard locally. And if in many of Bach’s choruses, attack was tentative, it might well have been due to lack of familiarity with a difficult score on the part of the singers ­ and possibly not quite enough rehearsal time to build up confidence. Inner vocal lines were not always as clear and carefully pitched as one might have hoped.

For all this, there was much that gave pleasure in the choruses that dot the score, largely due to John Beaverstock’s excellent choice of tempi – and an often pleasingly responsive orchestra. Apart from the opening movement, one of Bach’s most superb celebratory essays, in which the pace adopted was far too fast to allow its inherent joyousness to register satisfyingly on the consciousness, Beaverstock’s pace-setting was almost beyond criticism. In Glory be to God, an upbeat tempo and delightfully light choral textures combined to ravishing effect.

But it was in the work’s many chorales that the UWA Choral Society came into its own. There is a gravitas about many of these episodes that very effectively counter-balances the unsullied happiness that informs so much of the other writing for chorus. Here, too, Beaverstock’s tempi were beyond reproach. And the good, sturdy pace at which Rejoice and Sing was taken sounded entirely right.

Throughout, a small orchestra did wonders in support of both chorus and vocal soloists. It was a particularly good night for the trumpeters, with Jenny Coleman leading her sub-section with distinction, their silvery-toned fanfares and tricky high-register outbursts gauged to a nicety. This was especially evident in the introduction to Lord, when our Haughty Foe, given a gloriously ecstatic edge by the trumpeters.

There was a deal of fine horn playing, notably from Darryl Poulsen. And oboists, apart from some weakening of concentration in the introduction to part 2, were much on their mettle.

Of the vocal soloists, soprano Emma Pearson, after a tentative start, gave impressive evidence of growing vocal confidence. In Nought against the Power, she scaled the heights, producing a stream of ringing vocal tone that projected effortlessly into the auditorium. This was deeply affecting singing. And she came into her own yet again in the famous echo aria ­ Ah! My Saviour ­ clothing each phrase in glowing tone to which oboes responded beautifully; Katja Webb very effectively contributed the echo effect. Alto Emma Foster was clearly unwell but soldiered on gamely until the end. And although Stuart Haycock as the Evangelist brought pleasing clarity of diction to his many recitatives, there was a tendency to strain and force the tone. Baritone Andrew Moran sang with sense and sensibility.

© December 2003

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