Boston was bustling with holiday preparations Friday – city workers in bucket trucks stringing lights through the trees on the Common while others festooned the wrought iron gates and fencing of the Public Garden with evergreen wreaths and garlands. Over in Symphony Hall, Andris Nelsons was leading one of the first performances of the complete Christmas Oratorio in the Boston Symphony’s 138-year existence. Better late than never...

Andris Nelsons and soloists with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Festival Chorus
© Winslow Townson

Though each of the six parts has a narrative function, retelling episodes from the Gospels’ Nativity chronicles appropriate to the six liturgical celebrations running from Christmas Day to the Epiphany, they function even more as meditations on the significance of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. In this respect, the Evangelist both guides and instructs the congregation while the chorus voices their hopes and prayers, their joy and wonder, often to the tune of popular hymns.

Nelsons’ Bach seems to be a work in progress. Two seasons ago, the Mass in B minor was a throwback to pre-HIP, modern orchestra performances. For the oratorio, Nelsons employed a moderately sized orchestra adopting the lean sound, crackling tempi, and crisp articulation of a vibrato-free period instrument ensemble. The complete complement of strings or the orchestra as a whole joined in primarily for choral passages. Otherwise a chamber ensemble intimacy prevailed, despite fleeting problems with balance. The primary continuo duo of organist, Ian Watson, and first cello, Blaise Déjardin, sat directly in front of the podium with Richard Swoboda’s bassoon and Larry Wolfe’s double bass joining in when called on. Nelsons conducted from a high stool, rarely rising to his feet or using a baton. At times he gave the beat with his right hand while his left gripped the top of the special high railing affixed to the podium whenever he conducts, at others he led with his left, his right grasping the music stand.

The performance was blessed with an ideal vocal quartet. The tenor bears the heaviest burden singing the bulk of the recitatives plus three arias extensively laced with florid pyrotechnics. Sebastian Kohlhepp’s eloquent, silvery tones carried throughout the hall with ease and chimed like a set of altar bells in the cascades of notes in his arias. Andrè Schuen warm, supple, and oaky voice blended and contrasted well in the several duets Bach assigns his baritone and soprano and imbued his two arias with a sense of repose. Carolyn Sampson abetted him with smooth line and angelic light, then turned fierce and defiant in the recitative and aria in Part VI, calling out and condemning Herod. Her echo aria, “ Flößt mein Heiland”, was a magical interplay of soloist, oboes, and offstage children’s choir. The smoky gold of Christine Rice’s mezzo glowed hypnotically in the lullaby, “Schlafe mein Liebster” with its steady, long-held notes and warmed the prayerful, “Schließe mein Herze”. Occasionally her lower range was less audible but allowances should be made since she valiantly jumped in to take over for an indisposed colleague in the Handel and Haydn Society’s performances of Messiah sharing Symphony Hall with the BSO this weekend.

The joy and animation with which the Tanglewood Festival Chorus began the oratorio boded well, but too often their contributions were marred by muddy diction and blurred counterpoint. This is an ensemble in transition, so perhaps the personnel, both new and old, has yet to gel under James Burton or perhaps eighty-plus voices were too many to really achieve the clarity and articulation required. Uneven though they were, the performance as a whole still drew you in leaving no sense three hours had passed.

In Germany and Leipzig in particular, the Christmas Oratorio is performed with the same frequency during the holiday season as Messiah in English-speaking countries. This being Leipzig Week in Boston, when the BSO performs repertory associated with its sister orchestra, the Gewandhaus, programming Bach’s oratorio makes perfect sense. Let’s hope, though, that the cross pollination between the two orchestras means the Christmas Oratorio will now be heard more often than once every 138 years.