Jordi Savall © David Ignaszewski
Jordi Savall
© David Ignaszewski

Jordi Savall brings his musical family home to Barcelona for a Christmas celebration in the city’s Palau de la Música when he directs two of his ensembles, La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations, in a complete performance, spread over two nights, of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

One of the world’s foremost early music specialists, Savall is a musician of exceptionally wide ranging interests. He has brought to life much lesser-known European repertoire, particularly music written for his own instrument, the viol, and has made fascinating explorations of the musical connections between Europe and the wider world. He founded his vocal group La Capella Reial de Catalunya in 1987 to bring to life the vocal music of Spain’s Golden Age. The orchestra Le Concert des Nations followed a few years later. Savall and his ensembles cover such a wide range that performances of Bach’s choral masterpieces don’t come around very often: these two nights offer an opportunity to hear Savall’s imagination getting to work on Bach’s vivid musical storytelling and we can expect an interpretation of grace and flair, subtly underpinned by Savall’s meticulous scholarship.

The glorious Art Nouveau interior of the Palau de Música, with its stained glass windows, makes a fitting setting for the Christmas Oratorio, for in it Bach picks out the familiar Christmas story in glorious technicolor, like a musical version of a stained-glass window, beginning with a dramatic drum roll, followed by fanfares of trumpets and winds and a thrilling chorus, instructing the listeners to celebrate and rejoice.

Although we tend to think of the Christmas Oratorio as one complete piece of music, it is actually made up of six separate cantatas, which were first performed in Leipzig’s churches over the space of the twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany. When performed in one dose, it makes for a long evening and it’s often cut down to four of the six cantatas. By splitting it over two nights, Savall brings back a sense of a journey through the Christmas season, giving the audience a chance to shift the focus as the story develops.

Palau de la Música Catalana © Bluespicture
Palau de la Música Catalana
© Bluespicture

The first night, Parts I, II and III, (17 December) celebrates the birth of Jesus. Part I announces the arrival of the baby who is born to be a king, most notably in the utterly joyful aria “Grosser Herr” in which the solo bass and trumpet can barely contain their excitement at the news. Part II moves to the shepherds, beginning with a sinfonia in the style of a rustic siciliana – classic Baroque shorthand for a pastorale scene – played on oboes and flutes. This movement alone makes the case for hearing the Christmas Oratorio performed by Le Concert des Nation’s period instruments as Bach scored it for the oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia, two lovely, sweet sounding members of the Baroque oboe family. The peace of the shepherds is disturbed by a glittering chorus of angels and a duet for flute and tenor urging them to hurry to Bethlehem. The first night concludes in Part III with the Virgin Mary in quiet contemplation of her newborn son and his fate, in the ravishing alto aria “Schleße mein Herz”.

After hearing Part III at Leipzig’s Nikolaikirche on 27 December 1734, the churchgoers had a few days off. Savall’s second night, (18 December) picks up where the story resumes on New Year’s Day, 1735. Part IV marks the Feast of the Circumcision of Jesus and reflects on Christ’s future mission. The famous “echo” aria “Flößt, mein Heiland”, is a fervent meditation on Jesus’s name and for those who love Baroque brass, this cantata offers an extra treat with two natural horns accompanying the opening and closing choruses.

Parts V and VI turn to the arrival of the Three Kings at Epiphany and their vivid encounter with King Herod marks a moment of unusually direct dramatisation in the oratorio. Epiphany is a major part of the Christmas celebrations in Spain and Portugal, as it’s the day when families traditionally exchange gifts, so Bach’s joyful treatment of this final part of the story, ending with the “Passion chorale” transformed amidst a blaze of baroque trumpets will make a fitting end to this Barcelona performance.

Click here to find out more about Christmas Oratorio in Barcelona.

This article was sponsored by the Palau de la Música Catalana.