Handel’s Messiah has become something of a Christmas tradition, with performances around the country throughout December. Joseph Nolan, Artistic Director of the St George’s Concert Series in Perth, has programmed Bach’s Christmas Oratorio instead. The story will be told by leading soloists and the singers of the St George’s Cathedral Consort, with an orchestra led by Paul Wright. The concert is directed by Nolan, who spoke to Limelight about Bach’s magnificent, festive masterwork.

Joseph Nolan conducts in Perth Concert Hall. Photograph © Rebecca Mansell, courtesy of WASO

Every year we see Handel’s Messiah performed around the county at Christmas. Why did you choose to program Bach’s Christmas Oratorio?

Precisely as there as so many Handel Messiahs happening around the country. It is a wonderful tradition and I am certainly very happy for patrons to choose to see both Bach and Handel! However, if patrons must choose, I of course recommend that they come and experience Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. It is so rarely performed in comparison to Handel’s Messiah because the scale of the work is very significant, yet it is perfectly suited to the Christmas season. Although Messiah does deal with Christmas in Part 1, the real crux of Handel’s oratorio delves into the pain, suffering and joy of Lent, Easter and the Resurrection.

Bach famously used music he had already written for earlier secular works. Why do you think they work so well in a religious setting?

As the standard of Bach’s writing was generally so incredibly high, this meant when Bach adapted the existing music to fit the words of the Christmas Oratorio, it fitted together incredibly well. It is also important to remember that Bach was a master of the ‘parody’ technique in integrating music from previous cantatas.

Some have suggested that Bach’s choice of music for the six cantatas meant they were pieces of music he particularly liked. Would you agree with that assumption?

It might be true, but with all such assumptions, facts often remain elusive!

The six cantatas were originally written to be performed on six feast days across the 12 days of Christmas, and each has a different sound. Do you believe they come together as a unified whole, or can you tell the cantatas had different origins?

Cantatas 1, 3 and 6, which are all jubilant affairs with three trumpets and kettle drums, enjoy a natural affinity. For me, if push comes to shove, it could be said that Cantata No 4, which deals with the Circumcision of our Lord, is the one that could sound ‘dropped in’. This Cantata commences with the famous chorus ‘Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit’ in a very trenchant F major (a harmonic wrench from D Major) and concludes in the same key with the chorale ‘Jesus richte mein Beginnen’. As you might expect, given the textual material, the music here is much more sparse in texture in the arias, and the mood is much more sombre after its ebullient opening chorus.

Do you believe that Bach hoped they would all be performed together in a concert setting?

In the opinion of Christoph Wolff, Bach scholar and Harvard professor emeritus, “It almost seems as if Bach had meant to override given conditions [the separation of six parts over twelve days] and anticipate a non-liturgical concert performance.” I am hopeful that this is true, but for me, I am not sure there is really the evidence to be certain.

How special do you think the Christmas Oratorio is musically?

I cannot think of another opening chorus (‘Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage’) that paints the scene of Christmas Day with such unbridled joy and jubilant celebration. There are too many other gems to list here, and I would advise the first time listener to take it in one cantata at a time for a full appreciation.

Can you remember when you first heard it? Was it a recording or a live performance?

Actually, I heard it the first time actually conducting it – a thrilling experience! I was going through a phase at that time of not listening to any recordings until after performances. This was to ensure that I was developing a creative, independent mind, free of external influences.

How important is the Evangelist in linking it narratively?

A fine, storytelling Evangelist is crucial in any such narrative as they must set the scene for the ensuing chorus. Otherwise the choir and orchestra have nothing to react to! I believe we have the finest Evangelist in Australia for this performance in Paul McMahon. Paul was astoundingly good as the Evangelist in the performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion I conducted with WASO at Easter this year. He has such a plangent voice which is absolutely connected to the meaning of the text.

Can you tell us which soloists you have chosen?

Paul (Evangelist described above), Sara Macliver, Fiona Campbell and Andrew Foote. All Australian singing legends whom we are so fortunate to have living in Perth.

It runs nearly three hours. Will you have a break during the concert?

Due to costs, rehearsal time and to ensure artistic quality, I am cutting Cantata 4 which saves on horns, rehearsal costs and 25 minutes of performance times. In terms of the text, I believe this was the least dangerous option in terms of losing the thread of the Christmas Story. We will, as usual, have a 20 minute interval.

St George’s Concert Series presents Bach’s Christmas Oratorio at Perth Concert Hall on December 13