That Bach was a master composer is a given. He was also a master recycler, reworking existing pieces to fit a new guise and serve a different purpose. This practice, known as parody, may strike us as unoriginal, but in the Baroque period it was very much an accepted practice. Indeed, for a composer as busy as Bach, it was nothing short of necessity.
The apex of Bach’s parody works is the Christmas Oratorio. It consists of six cantatas, each written for a feast day of the Christmas season. Almost all of the oratorio’s music came from other works by Bach, mostly secular pieces. Without knowing its origins, though, you would be hard pressed to say that the music sounded anything other than perfectly suited to its occasion.
The Handel and Haydn Society capped off its year with a performance of the oratorio’s first, second, and sixth cantatas under associate conductor and chorusmaster John Finney on Thursday. While particular moments were joyous and powerful, the performance as a whole seemed oddly tentative and never really caught fire.
Rather than bring in vocal soloists, H&H parceled out the solo duties to members of the chorus. The largest role, that of the evangelist, went to tenor Randy McGee. His voice was sweet and delicate, but he seemed ill at ease on Thursday. There was little fluidity to his phrasing, his top notes were uncertain, and his German diction was often incomprehensible. Other chorus members took the various recitatives and arias. All of them were capable, though few made a deeper impression. The standouts were soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad, whose rich, multihued voice was ideal for “Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen,” and alto Thea Lobo, whose coolly intense rendition of “Schlafe, mein Liebster” would have been even more effective had she looked up from her score more often.
They did better as an aggregate; indeed, the choral singing was surprisingly weighty given the relatively small number of singers. The orchestra, too, was small but produced a robust sound, and the two groups made Bach’s big choruses and chorales — such as the celebratory “Jauchzet, frohlocket” which begins the first cantata and “Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben” which opens the sixth — especially enjoyable. Finney’s direction was clear and precise, though the rhythms were somewhat square. There were lovely solo contributions from flutist Wendy Rolfe and oboists Stephen Hammer and Lani Spahr. The entire trumpet section, led by Jesse Levine, did heroic work. The continuo group — including organist Michael Beattie, cellist Guy Fishman, and bassist Douglas Balliett — provided solid support throughout the evening.