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MUSIC REVIEW

Handel and Haydn give us Bach and a whirl beyond

As Boston winter holiday traditions go, the Handel and Haydn Society’s “A Bach Christmas’’ does not have the cachet of “Messiah’’ or “The Nutcracker’’ or Holiday Pops. But what would Christmas be without Bach’s Advent and Christmas cantatas, and in particular his “Christmas Oratorio’’?

The program that American conductor Steven Fox, in his H&H debut, has assembled for this year’s celebration opens with Bach’s Cantata No. 133, “Ich freue mich in dir,’’ and closes with Cantata V from the “Christmas Oratorio.’’ But in between, Fox takes us on a whirlwind sleigh ride that even Santa might envy, with musical stops in Mexico, Bolivia, Russia, and the United States. It’s a stunning tribute not just to Bach but to his influence and that of the Baroque style.

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Thursday evening at Jordan Hall, “Ich freue mich in dir’’ stretched somewhat the 13 instrumentalists and the 16 singers, from whose ranks the vocal soloists were drawn. There were occasional intonation problems and hectic moments from the orchestra, and soprano Margot Rood, though pleasantly nasal, sounded thin and did not enunciate clearly. Tenor Stefan Reed, rich and soft, was the vocal standout. And everything came together in the lulling final chorale, where the chorus vows to sleep in the newborn “Jesulein.’’

Scored for seven strings and organ, the anonymous “Sonata Chiquitanas,’’ an instrumental piece from Bolivia, provided an agreeable palate cleanser. The villancico “Celebren, Publiquen’’ by Mexican composer Manuel de Zumaya - a contemporary of Bach’s who blended Old and New World styles - is a hymn to Mary rather than Jesus. Both chorus and orchestra made a joyful noise, even if the Spanish pronunciation did not have much bite.

Generic pronunciation was also a minor blemish in the Russian hymn that opened the second half of the program, Dmitry Bortniansky’s “Tebe Boga Khvalim’’ (“We Praise Thee, O God’’), but the flavor of this odd amalgam of Italian (Bortniansky spent 10 years studying in Italy) and Russian church music was spot-on. And the performances of the two American hymns, “The Shepherd’s Star’’ and Jeremiah Ingalls’s “The Apple Tree’’ (which likens Jesus to the tree of life), were the evening’s best.

Cantata V from the “Christmas Oratorio’’ describes the journey of the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem. I missed the trumpet and percussion that elevate this piece’s other sections, but it was Bach’s decision to use here the softer, gentler oboe d’amore, and Stephen Hammer’s introduction to the bass aria glowed like a Christmas candle. By this point, the singers were in full angelic flight. Fox explained that they were going to repeat the opening chorus “because it’s fun to perform.’’ It was fun to listen to, as well.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.
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