Bach's 'Christmas Oratorio' soars when performed by Choral Arts

November 02, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

There is no more exhilarating opening in all of music than the beginning of Bach's "Christmas Oratorio." The combination of those soaring trumpets, anchored by an insistent timpani line that is full of expectation, with the exultant voices of the chorus can produce something like an elated state. At least it can when it is performed as beautifully as it was yesterday afternoon in Kraushaar Auditorium by the chorus and orchestra of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, its music director Tom Hall, and several fine soloists.

Since the six sections of the piece are actually cantatas that were written for performance on separate days, it was entirely appropriate that Hall elected to perform the first three, which were designed to celebrate the first three days of the Nativity.

The manner in which Hall performs the masterpieces of the 18th century can perhaps be described as enlightened middle-of-the-road. That is to say that although he uses a chorus rather larger than those preferred by today's authenticists and that his musicians use modern instruments, he is clearly aware of the latest scholarship about authentic performances on period instruments. Thus while the scale was larger than in a period performance, the tempos were fast (dance-like rather than breathless) and the string articulation and the choral singing were crisp and light. The celebrations of the first and third cantatas were joyful and exuberant and the music of the second was thoughtful.

Hall has a knack for engaging superb soloists, and this performance proved to be no exception. With his beautiful, light tenor voice Alan Bennet made an exceptional evangelist, and Monica Reinagel, with an expressiveness both virginal and tender, made a strong impression with her lovely mezzo. Edward Crafts' singing was beautifully detailed and his largish baritone had exactly the right weight. In smaller solo parts, Faith Okkema and Andrea Burgoyne also sang with beauty of tone.

The chorus was splendid and the playing of the orchestra was inspired. A short list of some wonderful contributions would have to include timpanist Dennis Kain's pointed playing in the majestic opening, flutist Emily Controulis' wonderful partnering of Bennet's first tenor aria, Langston Fitzgerald's virtuosic and accurate handling of the difficult trumpet line and the sensitive organ playing of Maurice Murphy and the magnificent violin playing of concertmaster Andy Wasyluszko in the first mezzo aria of the third cantata.

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