Johann Sebastian Bach held the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig for almost three decades, providing music for four of the city’s churches, and producing a vast catalogue of music for the Lutheran services – including a wealth of beautiful music for his many Christmases in the city. He wasn’t afraid to reuse and rework earlier material for these sacred purposes, but his Christmas music is nonetheless some of the most beautiful on offer – and, in these refined, thoughtful performances by period instrument ensemble Bach Akademie Australia in Sydney’s Christ Church St Laurence, a welcome counterpoint to the performances of Handel’s Messiah so ubiquitous at this time of year.
Madeleine Easton, Anna Sandström and Bach Akademie Australia. Photo © Noni Caroll
The musicians of Bach Akademie Australia, led by violinist Madeleine Easton, opened the concert with the BWV 151 cantata, Süsser Trost, or Sweet Comfort, which – like many of the works in this program – features a prominent flute part. The wooden baroque flute or traverso has a sweeter, more delicate sound than the metal orchestral flute we know today, and it is this quality that Bach harnessed in this Christmas Cantata, written for the third day of Christmas in 1725, during the first few years of his tenure in Leipzig. In the hands of Mikaela Oberg, it was particularly exquisite, her timbre soon echoed by soprano Anna Sandström, who gave a clear, bell-like account of the opening aria, bringing a celebratory lightness to the florid ornamentation on the words “Herz und Seele freuert sich” (heart and soul rejoice). As they would have in Bach’s day, the soloists emerged from the choir itself, giving well-judged performances throughout, the chorus giving the final, emphatic word on the cantata.
Oberg’s flute would again feature in the only non-Christmas – and indeed, non-sacred – work on the program, the Second Orchestral Suite, BWV 1067, a collection of movements dating most probably from Bach’s pre-Leipzig days in Köthen. Here again the Bach Akademie musicians delivered a refined, vibrant sound, but the vagaries of the church acoustic meant that often the flute lines – generally more a part of the ensemble here than solo lines as such – paled against the more penetrating sound of the violin. Oberg did, however, shine through in the soloistic moments, such as the Polonaise, where the texture reduced to flute and continuo. Her deft virtuosity in this movement was a pleasure, particularly in the florid central section, and her spritely account of the final Badinerie – drilled so indelibly into pop culture consciousness by the 90s era Nokia ringtone – infusing the famous tune with a sparkling freshness.
Richard Butler, Madeleine Easton, Mikaela Oberg and Bach Akademie Australia. Photo © Noni Caroll
The bulk of the concert’s second half was given over to Part Two of Bach’s Weinachts-Oratorium, or Christmas Oratorio – conducted here by Easton – in which the shepherds are told of the birth of Christ. Two oboe d’amores and two oboe da caccias depict the shepherds themselves in the opening instrumental Sinfonia, a fantastic pastoral evocation which the Bach Akademie oboe quartet delivered with aplomb. Again, choir and soloists did a formidable job throughout, with highlights including Andrew O’Connor’s authoritative and tender bass recitatives and tenor Richard Butler’s clarity of text as the Evangelist, flute again coming to the fore as Oberg weaved agile lines around Butler’s “Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet,” (Happy shepherds, hurry, ah, hurry) aria. The pastoral oboes returned in force to join the singers in the final triumphant chorus.
Capping off the evening with festive trumpet and drums was Bach’s Christmas Cantata BWV 191, Gloria in Excelsis Deo, performed (using, as was often the case with the ever pragmatic Bach, material prepared earlier) for a special service celebrating the end of the Second Silesian War on the first day of Christmas in 1745. If the singers felt slightly overwhelmed by the drum in the opening chorus, they pulled out all the stops for the second, the combined ensemble blazing forth to bring this concert to a joyous conclusion.
Bach Akademie Australia tours Comfort & Joy to Parramatta and Wharoonga until December 1