Richard Nisley

Bach at Christmas
Music - Classical Released - Dec 22, 2014

Surprise your friends and family—play Bach at Christmastime. Here's three pieces that will uplift the lowest of spirits:

MASS IN B MINOR (CD) — J. S. Bach’s “Mass in B minor” has been compared with Michelangelo’s David and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as among the greatest works of art of Western Civilization. What’s curious is Bach never heard his masterpiece performed, not all of it. The B minor Mass lends itself neither to the standard Catholic liturgy nor to the Lutheran. It wasn’t premiered until 100-plus years after his death. So, why did Bach go to all the trouble, likely knowing it would not be performed in his lifetime? Partly because he was a perfectionist who desired to summarize the tradition of the mass in a single perfect example, and partly to make a statement on the nature of sacred music for others to aim for. With the exception of Ludvig von Beethoven, few have tried. Then again, Beethoven never could resist a challenge.

Bach worked on his mighty Mass in B minor throughout much of his professional life, beginning with the Sanctus, in 1724, and concluded with the Credo, in 1748-49. He died in 1750. In spite of the Mass being a collection of diverse styles, there is a powerful unity in its harmonic logic and overall plan, as well as a compelling beauty to the music itself. Like an opera, the score is divided into choral and solo numbers, 27 in all. The pillars of the work are nine massive choruses, adorned with celebratory trumpets and drums. Between them, like jewels on a string, are a variety choruses, arias, and duets, some with obligato instrumental solos. About the Mass, conductor Leopold Stokowski wrote: “It has a cosmic vastness of expression and consciousness. . . . It is as if all of nature, man, the planets, the whole universe were singing together.” The Mass in B minor, he concluded, could only have come from the spirit of a man who was moved to the uttermost of his being.

About this performance: conductor John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and English Baroque Soloists have certainly received their share of hosannas over the years, notably for their performances of Bach’s music. There is a crispness, flow and spirit-de-corp that sets them apart. The soloists for this recording, chosen from the ranks of the Monteverdi Choir, have soft voices but blend well and can always be distinguished from the chorus. The 1985 recording features clear and spacious sound to match Gardiner’s transcendent vision.

CHRISTMAS ORATORIO (CD) — First, a word about the recording: it's first-rate, with warm atmospheric sound. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner's account has all the virtues of a well-done period-instrument rendition--flow, clarity, and color--yet conveys the grandeur and weight that are essential to Bach's conception, thereby combining the best of the new and the traditional. Amen to that.

Question: why hasn't Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" enjoyed the same success as Handel's "Messiah"? Why, indeed? Has it something to do with the length, content, or musical structure? No. Both oratorios are roughly identical in length (about two hours and 20 minutes), both rely on the Bible as sources, and both employ roughly the same forces: four principle soloists, orchestra and choir. Bach's oratorio is divided into six parts, Handel's into three. The musical numbers of each part take the same form of recitatives, arias and choruses. Also in common: the singers do not assume dramatic roles; there is not a single dominant narrative voice, and very little use is made of quoted speech. That's what the two oratorios have in common.

And the differences? Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" is primarily about the birth of Jesus and the events immediately following, up to and including the worship of the child by the Three Wise Men. Handel's "Messiah" begins with God's promises as spoken by Old Testament prophets, includes the Birth, Life, Passion, Death and Ascension, and ends with Christ's glorification in heaven. Bach constructed the Six Parts of his Oratorio so that each stood on its own as separate musical entity, to be given in six performances, over the Twelve Days of Christmas. Handel's Oratorio, on the other hand, was designed to be given in a single evening. And, too, Handel's oratorio is sung in English and Bach's is sung in German. The biggest difference, however, is Bach's Oratorio was composed for the Church, while Handel's was a work for the theater. You might say, their oratorios reflect their personalities--Bach as a pious, reflective man of the church, and Handel as an outgoing man of the world. Bach's music was written for the comfort of the inner man; Handel's for public display of joy and celebration. It all may come down to one word: Hallelujah.

CANTATAS 140 and 80 (CD) — Bach regarded all music as holy in a broad sense, whether sacred or secular, and this was especially true of his cantatas. They were intended to edify, to instruct the faithful through the power of art, and most of all to elevate the spirit. That's what these two cantatas do especially well--elevate the spirit, which surely explains their popularity. BMV 140 "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" ("Wake, cries to us the voice"), for three soloists, chorus and orchestra, was composed around 1731. It's based on a hymn by Philipp Nicolai. BMV 80 "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" ("A Mighty Fortress is our God") is something of hybrid. It was apparently written as early as 1708, as a cantata for "Oculi" Sunday, with additions made later in Leipzig, between 1723 and 1731. Sections 1, 5, and 8 are based on Martin Luther's famous chorale ("A Mighty Fortress is our God"), while the remaining text was supplied by librettist Salomo Franck. The trumpets in the second and fifth sections were apparently added much later, after Bach's death, by is son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. The high-point of the work is the duet in section 7, a quintet of two voices and three instruments. In this recording, the two cantatas showcase the talents of soprano Elly Ameling, tenor Aldo Baldwin and bass Samuel Ramey. Kudos to conductor Raymond Leppard for cohesive direction. This is grand music, grandly played, grandly sung, and very well-recorded. If you're into Bach, or even if you aren't, this music is basic repertoire, a must-have. I play it at Christmas; it seems appropriate.

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