Unlike Handel’s “Messiah,” Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” has never been a Boston holiday tradition. Of course, it didn’t start out as a single performance piece in its home town of Leipzig. Bach composed (or recomposed — a lot of recycling was involved) the oratorio in 1734, and the six cantatas that make it up were first presented individually in the churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas between Christmas Day and Epiphany of 1734-35. The whole runs some 2½ hours, significantly longer than “Messiah,” and it’s a test of the musicians’ expressiveness. The welcome performance offered by Emmanuel Music Saturday at Emmanuel Church, under its artistic director, Ryan Turner, did not fail that test, but it didn’t pass with flying colors.
The narrative thread of the “Christmas Oratorio” is the Evangelist’s recital, from the Gospels, of Christ’s nativity, in an upbeat version with Herod’s slaughter of the innocents omitted. On that thread Bach and his librettist (probably German poet Christian Friedrich Henrici) strung recitatives, arias, choruses, and chorales, these last mostly settings of hymn tunes like “Vom Himmel hoch” and (familiar from Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”) “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.” The nonbiblical texts are more personal than the libretto of “Messiah” (which is all from the Bible); the music is not as operatic as Handel’s. The vocal soloists need to pour their hearts out; the instrumentalists have to swing.
Here the opening choral outburst, “Jauchzet, frohlocket,” set the tone: static, punched out, proceeding in dots and dashes. Enunciation was not clear, and the three trumpets, delightful as they were, overwhelmed both chorus and orchestra. The rest never quite took off. Balance with the trumpets was a continuing problem. Chorales were sleepy and lacked fervor; the “crowd” choruses lacked clarity. Some of the vocal soloists, who were drawn from the 20-member chorus and changed from one cantata to the next, sounded oddly recessed, their words evaporating; others barked and shouted. The sublime siciliana that opens the second cantata was all local, no long line, no lilt. The performance, with a 20-minute intermission, lasted just more than three hours; it seemed longer.
Still, there was more good than bad. The orchestral playing was stellar, with Peggy Pearson’s oboe and oboe d’amore pungent throughout, and Heidi Braun-Hill supplying a heartfelt violin obbligato to the alto aria “Schliesse, mein Herze.” Matthew Anderson as the Evangelist was a reassuring presence, singing with firm tone and reacting to every word. Recitatives were gratifying in general, the singers embracing the text; bass Dana Whiteside was a standout.
Soprano Margot Rood in “Flösst, mein Heiland” and alto Mary Gerbi in the trio “Ach, wenn wir die Zeit erscheinen” both projected emotion with easy power. I liked the hush that Turner brought to the manger chorale “Schaut hin, dort liegt im finstern Stall,” and the care with which he had the chorus observe the commas in the line “O Jesu, Jesu, setze.” And the jubilant chorus that opens the fifth cantata, “Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen,” could have been the model for the rest of the performance: “Let honor be sung to You, O God,” and it was.