Rainer Buhmann Review – Christmas Oratorio

Music and Artistic Director:   Rita Paczian

2023-Concert No. 4

Johann Sebastian Bach, Christmas Oratorio BWV 248, Parts I – III

Sunday, December 10th, 2023

Auckland Town Hall

Soprano: Joanna Foote

Countertenor: Stephen Diaz

Tenor (Evangelist): Iain Tetley

Bass: James Harrison

Conductor: Rita Paczian


Bach Musica NZ farewelled our difficult year of 2023 with

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, parts I-III, depicting the

Birth of Jesus Christ according to the Gospel of Luke. This was Bach’s 3rd major work, composed in 1734 – therefore, after his St John and St Matthew Passions, composed in 1724 and 1727 respectively.

Bach Musica NZ’s Christmas Oratorio concert was performed in the original German language. Rita Paczian conducted in part from the harpsichord.

At the time of his Christmas Oratorium’s creation still in his 40s, Bach channelled exuberant energy into the oratorio’s opening chorus “Jauchzet, Frohlocket”. It comes across like a solid ‘baroque-portal’ to the proceedings that follow. Mentally superbly prepared by conductor Rita Paczian, the chorus immediately embarked on a relentless fortissimo blast. The immediate Tsunami-like onslaught by a superbly voiced Bach Musica NZ chorus, where tenors and basses were particularly expressive, interpreted the underlying words so overwhelmingly, that their invitation to the audience to be joyful and to rejoice was ultimately compelling.

The mighty entry-chorus was stunningly and impeccably penetrated by solo-trumpeter Orson Paine, whom, on account of a sudden illness-cancellation, Rita Paczian had secured only in the very last moment.

Thus, the standard was set for an oratorio-performance of the highest calibre.  The immediate question was: will the soloists match that standard?

The initial answer was provided by Countertenor, Stephen Diaz, Alto, who decidedly took charge with his recitative “Nun wird mein lieber Braeutigam” – and immediately thereafter with his aria “Bereite dich Zion”. His assured voice was strong, dominant and of distinct clarity and beauty. His insightful collaboration with Alison Dunlop’s oboe provided an early concert-highlight. The undoubted competency of his performance was further enhanced by his brief part III recitative “Ja, ja, mein Herz” – a gemstone in this concert.

As he repeatedly did: Bach borrowed from his other compositions – and as in this case from his St Matthew Passion with the chorale “Wie soll ich dich empfangen”. In contrast this chorale was now most sensibly provided by the chorus and led to the introduction of Evangelist-tenor, Iain Tetley. Previously referred to as currently the best Bach-Evangelist in this country, he immediately stamped his authority on proceedings and provided an immaculate tenor-narrative in his recitatives and a convincing example of his beautiful, sustained voice within the difficult realm of Bach’s aria. This he extensively demonstrated in his “Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet”, ably supported by Rita Paczian’s harpsichord and the solo-flute of Catherine Bowie.

Bass James Harrison had his noted introduction with his poignant aria “Grosser Herr, o starker Koenig”. He immediately provided another concert-highlight not only on account of his resonant and cultivated voice, but also on account of his voice’s doubtless authority.  Particularly notable also was his glorious collaboration once again with Orson Paine on piccolo-trumpet and the luscious support by the orchestra’s strings and woodwind. Simply breath-taking!

The chorus’ exuberant and glorious interpretation of the oratorio’s part II “Brich an, o schoenes Morgenlicht” chorale would easily make us believe that we were actually witnessing the beginning of a new day. Their confident and rigorous attack of one of the most difficult choruses in ‘musica sacra’, “Ehre sei Gott in der Hoehe”, was simply outstanding!  Rita Paczian provided no reprieve in her enduring tempi, energy and watchful eye. The chorus’ projection of the German language was excellent!

The soloist with the smallest workload was Soprano Joanna Foote. However, she did not need much exposure to demonstrate the distinct quality of her light soprano voice. Her brief ’Fuerchtet euch nicht’ announcement to the shepherds in part II was most convincing.

This was further endorsed by her part III aria in duet with James Harrison’s bass “Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen”, passionately supported by Alison Dunlop and Alison Jepson oboes d’amore, Philip Sumner, bassoon and Michael Steer, double bass. Here, Joanna Foote leaves us in no doubt about her inherent musical intuition and the strength and encompassing beauty of her cultivated soprano voice.

The Bach Musica NZ orchestra once again came up to the highest performing-standard. Each orchestra-sector produced glorious music “from their hearts”. A special mention is deserved by Catherine Bowie and Christine Kim, flutes, Gemma Pilchen and Josh Webster, English horns, Orson Paine, Peter Reid and Matthew Verill, trumpets, Philip Sumner, bassoon, and by Michael Steer, the solitary double-bass. The unobtrusive but very important contribution of Caleb Goldsmith’s timpani should also be highlighted.

Rita Paczian once again had a lucky hand in retaining her orchestra-leader, on this occasion Miranda Hutton of NZ Barok fame.  She and her entire string-sections of 1st and 2nd violins, of violas and celli provided the final gloss.  Miranda Hutton herself shone in her solo-accompaniment of Stephen Diaz in his alto-aria “Schliesse, mein Herze”, superbly supported solo cellist Paul Mitchell and the chamber-organ-continuo of Elizabeth Lau.

A difficult year with Covid aftermath, Cyclone Gabrielle, life-style existential pressures, the political demands of a General Election and war in the Middle East has come to an end. We need moments of total respite and being brought in touch with avenues, leading us again to inner peace and the regaining of inner strength.

It can be suggested that Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Bach Musica NZ’s performance of this beautiful music provide this momentary pathway at the doorstep to Christmas.

Responsible for enduringly providing this pathway is Bach Musica NZ Musical Director Rita Paczian, who next year in 2024 is approaching the 30th anniversary of her amazing association with this outstanding ensemble.

                                                                        Rainer W. Buhmann