Most Christmas concerts present ultra-familiar repertoire, seeking to distinguish themselves in presentation. At most, they’ll throw in a few lesser-known hymns or songs to pique the audience’s interest. For the Washington Bach Consort’s Christmas concert, on Sunday at the National Presbyterian Church, founder and music director J. Reilly Lewis did not choose this path.
Instead, Lewis led a 16-voice choir in an exquisitely sung concert of Christmas-inspired music from classical’s early years, all of it fascinating and most of it little-known. Apart from organist Scott Detra’s performance of a Bach prelude on “Von Himmel hoch” (BWV 738), in which the melody is just occasionally recognizable, the first familiar tune came in the second piece after intermission, in a series of insanely florid settings of verses “In dulci jublio” by Hieronymous Praetorius. (Also, I am not sure that “Von Himmel hoch” counts as a “familiar tune” for anyone not raised Lutheran, as I was. Adjust accordingly.)
The concert thus put one in mind not of celebrations of Christmas but of the miracle of Christ’s birth as perceived way back in the day. Most Christmas music tugs at the heartstrings in part because it was playing during heartstring-tugging moments in our lives. Without those associations, this music provided a total focus on the Nativity, and the WBC’s precise, joyful performances served as a reminder of what a strange and awe-inspiring story it is.
It’s too bad that the program did not list the names of the 16 choristers, since they put on a clinic on Sunday. Felicitous details abounded. In Giovanni Gabrieli’s “Beata es, Virgo Maria,” the melody for the words “intercede pro nobis” — “intercede for us,” i.e., with God — slides downward on “nobis.” The WBC singers articulated this so clearly that you could almost see a penitent sinner bowing down before the altar. Rafaella Aleotti’s “Angelus ad pastores alt,” setting the “tidings of great joy” verses of the Bible in high Renaissance style, ends on a slightly dissonant modal Alleluia that the WBC made searing in its intensity — a manifestation of the idea of joy so complete it’s almost painful. The choir showed their range in Jan Pieterszoon Sweelink’s “Gaudete omnes,” which began in a major-key, dance-y mood before dipping briefly into a seemingly bottomless well of yearning on the words “expectatio nostra” (“our hope”). Such singing consistently made vivid the emotional world of each piece, even when the pieces were so short it seemed they were over before they began.
A couple of the pieces Lewis and the WBC performed should probably be added to the collective Christmas playlist. Martin Peerson’s “Upon my lap my Sov’reign sits” has a refrain of “Sing lullaby, my little Boy/Sing lullaby, mine only joy!” In this performance, the song actually sounded lullabyish with a palpable hush and precisely formed, warm harmonies. And the piece by Hieronymous Praetorius (no relation to Michael) mentioned earlier, a Magnificat incorporating “Joseph Lieber, Joseph mein” as well as “In dulci jublio,” contrasted the hymns with energetic declarations of God’s might and mercy while sending sopranos soaring above the melodic lines of said hymns; the result consistently defied expectations, always a challenge for 400-year-old music. (The passing moments of strain in the sopranos here seemed designed to highlight just how impressive the rest of the singing was.)
The concert also featured a Latin tinge, by which I mean not Latin texts but music from Spain and Latin America. Not coincidentally, the two most fun pieces featured a drum: Lewis actually led the choir into the sanctuary while beating the skins in Juan Pérez Bocanegra’s “Hanacpachap cussicuinin,” coming to us from Peru and the 17th century; the surprise of hearing percussion was matched by the fierceness of Bocanegra’s harmonies, not to mention the fearsome ancient consonantal combinations. Besides the return of the drum, Spanish composer Geronimo Gonzalez’s “Serenissima una noche” featured also a really bouncy, catchy melody you immediately wanted to hear again.
Organ interludes found Dettra delivering an agile, cunningly paced performance of a Domenico Scarlatti fugue, besides blazing through a couple pieces by the usual suspect with the initials “JSB.” The interludes showed off Nat Pres’ wonderful organ and gave both singers and audience the opportunity to rest from the imaginative act of perceiving Christ’s birth as it was perceived in the 16th and 17th centuries. Lewis and the Washington Bach Consort gave a concert that was truly transporting, but ultimately, few people want to spend all of Christmastime away from home.