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sydney philharmonia choirs: bach’s christmas oratorio @city recital hall

Above: The four soloists joining Sydney Philharmonia Choirs for this concert: (l to r) Margaret Plummer (mezzo-soprano, Penelope Mills (soprano), Andrew Goodwin (tenor) and Christopher Richardson (bass-baritone). Featured image, orchestra and choir was led by Brett Weymark. Images: Keith Saunders.

What oratorio music other than Handel’s Messiah could move us with equal joy and solemnity at this seasonal time of a full and emotionally demanding year?

The answer: JS Bach. Bach anything is always so moving and jubilant. The Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, under the precise, charismatic baton of Brett Weymark, have gifted us with many Sydney Opera House Messiahs in the past, often in huge massed choir formats.

This concert was a special and refreshing change from that tradition, offering up the music of JS Bach which celebrates the Nativity in unquestionably excellent style with his several church cantatas forming the tremendous storytelling swoop which is the combination-oratorio originally heard across six liturgical weeks, the Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248. 

From sixteen years prior to Bach’s death and conclusion of a highly productive cantata output for St Thomas Church in Leipzig. The main parts of Bach’s six-week musical journey from Christmas Day music at his employ right up until the Epiphany were well represented here.

Andrew Goodwin, a formidable narrator-evangelist in previous Christmas and Easter choral works reprised this storytelling role with  penetrating  tone and exciting command of the tone.

We were led clearly through the sequence of Birth of Jesus, Anunciation to the Shepherds and Adoration of the Shepherds via Goodwin’s excellent oration and linking of chourus comments, duets and arias from his fellow soloists.

But this was an oratorio performance with an innovative twist. In addition to the Philharmonia Choirs’ signature choral Acknowledgement of Country- the beautiful, atmospheric Tarimi Nulay by Deborah Cheetham Fraillon we also heard non-Bach werke in the shape  of interludes from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The glorious Bach setting of the Nativity was also further celebrated for our adoration, augmented by a rocketing reading to conclude the event  of Bach’s Cantata for Christmas BWV 191, based on upcycled music from Bach’s B Minor Mass.

These more-modern styled tropes and interludes world’s and at times years apart from the Baroque master’s joyous trumpet and drum adorned choruses of the Christmas Oratorio were not jarring nor curious but rather very fulfilling palate-cleansers following Bach’s joyful counterpoint, recitatives and soloist ensemble storytelling with excellent density and joy.

Following the Christmas Oratorio’s Part One, with infectious and secure bounce from Weymark and the assembled vocalists, we were treated to Joseph Rheinberger’s Abenlied, completed in final version by the church composer in 1863.

Above: Members of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Image: Keith Saunders.

This multi-voice part work ‘s inclusion in the Bach event was later added to by the contribution of a very modern sensibility and challenging atmosphere by Swedish composer Jan Sandström. His s resetting in 1990 of the pre-Baroque German hymn Es ist ein Ros entsprungen was a superb moment of stillnes to complement the more hectic energy of the Part 1 Bach textures.

The Rheinberger and Sandström works showcased the Philharmonia Choirs’ commitment to creating controlled choral atmospheres despite the compositional origin. The two non-Bach additions after Part 1 and 3 of the oratorio lifted us from the detail that is Bach’s church commentary and echoed them excellently through time.

The versatility of this choir and conductor was also entertainingly displayed in this way. With regard to the reading of the Cantata BWV 191, the choral control was also put to the test with its energetic gloria setting. The  goal in both Bach’s time and for this concert being to further decorate the statement of Christmas joy and emotions around the Nativity.

The synergy between soloists and soloists plus orchestra as well as choir was in this cantata appendix demonstrated with finesse by soprano Penelope Mills plus Andrew Goodwin in the central section of Cantata for Christmas.

Such commendable, consistent attention to detail, balance of the ensemble forces and creation of fine shape in the telling of the Christmas Oratorio nativity ensured appropriate momentum was maintained throughout the work and the composition’s sequence reached us with navitas.

Our exposure to this important Christmas and church work from Bach unfolded stirringly at the hands of early music ensemble experts, complete with rousing timpani, brass and on point string choir. The choir exclamations for the oratorio sections were well contrasted, with new aspects of each section or feeling of the tale resonating in varied hues.

The four soloists worked well together and separately to push the Christmas story through. Roles of the holy family, angels or shepherds were well characterised through well phrase endurance of Bach’s intricacies as well as joyous vocal colours from soloists and in combination with the orchestra and choral voice.

Previous performances of key passions, masses and oratorios of Baroque and varied time periods from Sydney Philharmonia Choirs in past decades have made for special and important events and introduction to major choral works for Sydney audiences.

This compact, meaty concert stage performance of Bach’s BWV 248 with special guest works to gild its delivery has truly updated the last performance of this important work by Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, heard twenty years ago. It left us with a multi-faceted celebration of this choir, soloists orchestra and methods of retelling or celebrating the nativity story as well as reactions to its meaning.

Bach, with all his functional music aptitude and love of a practical, live musical atmosphere would have been as thrilled as the Sydney Opera House audience with the result.




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