The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra summoned the spirit of the holiday season this weekend with their performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. The work was originally composed for church services taking place during the Christmas season of 1734. Tonight’s performance featured the entire work, which was originally split into six sections, each intended for a different day.

Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra © AMC
Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
© AMC

One of Holland’s leading Baroque orchestra ensembles, the ABO is led under the direction of Ton Koopman. A wealth of historically-informed practice and a commitment to playing on period instruments has set this group apart. The result in performance is absolutely seamless in its execution and inviting in its commitment from each member of the group. Each section of the orchestra and choir seems connected to the other members; it’s not uncommon to witness winks and glimpses of mutual enjoyment from those on stage. This is truly a musician’s orchestra, each individual taking it upon him- or herself to support and enhance the experience of the whole.

The use of period instruments offers a dark, rich and warm timbre. The buzzy, resonant quality of the reeds (bassoons and oboes) offers a hint of character to the already rich presence of the bass. Most evident of this section’s strength was the oboe solo in the aria for soprano in the final cantata. Antoine Torunczyk’s execution of the call and response (“echo”) phrases was absolute perfection. It’s moments like these when the oboe shines to its fullest beauty.

The vocal styling of bass Klaus Mertens were particularly striking. When he took the soloist position with his steadfast, humble stance, I was so moved not only by his deep, clear diction and warm sonority but even more by his stage presence. His reverence and surety on stage gave us as listeners something intriguing to latch onto, a voice which spoke truth and beauty at the same time. The aria for bass and soprano (featuring the magnificent Johannette Zomer) is a perfect example of Mertens’ generosity on stage.

Despite the top level of performance of the orchestra, one can’t help but wonder why we hear the entire version in this condensed format. Meant to be spread out over several days during the Christmas season, the Christmas Oratorio did not have the nearly three-hour duration it did during this performance. Of course, demands of the modern age and concert agendas perhaps require a new outlook for performing this repertoire. However, I must admit that the stamina not only of the players involved on stage (kudos to all!) but the ears of the listeners is taxed sufficiently by the sheer amount of time required to stay attentive.

One final mark of this orchestra’s sensitive soloistic charm was the aria for tenor and traverso (Baroque flute) performed so exquisitely by Wilbert Hazelzet and tenor Tilman Lichdi. The flute bubbled ever so delicately over the intimate texture underneath. Both flute and tenor emerged lovingly out of the sonority with little effort, creating an enchanting atmosphere not yet heard in the piece.

This particular work of Bach’s is special in its featuring of various members of the orchestra, as was mentioned earlier with the oboe but also rings true for the traverso and violin. The juxtaposition of brilliant vocal soloists as well as vibrant instrumental soloists is what makes this ensemble top notch. Though we can never know the exact quality of execution during the time of Bach, we can imagine it, and with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, we get pretty close!