Back-to-back Christmas Bach in Amsterdam

The Amsterdam Concertgebouw in 1902

Christmas is almost upon us and Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratario) is on the menu in three different flavours at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on almost consecutive days, Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday.

B’rock (get it?)

René Jacobs kicked off the series on 13 december with a Saturday afternoon matinee, with the RIAS chamber choir and the Belgian baroque orchestra B’rock, which he conducted here recently in an Handel opera.

For some reason, this was not listed in the local cultural rag, and I didn’t realize it was on till this lunchtime (Sunday), while browsing through the current early music leaflet of the Concertgebouw. Jacobs offered the full set of six which, although it’s not historically correct for them all to be performed on the same day, I am used to, and would have preferred. Had I known, I could have even heard it broadcast live on Dutch radio; too late now, though.

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

The second up is the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, which I’ve only ever heard in recordings. They are just playing numbers 1,2, 3 and 6 aided and abetted by the English tenor James Gilchrist, who’s always good value, and the Windsbacher Knabenchor which, to be honest, I’d never heard of.  It turns out that this is the choir of a German boys boarding school.

I just made it to this concert, which was sold out, and managed, exactly 3 minutes before it began, to get a returned ticket. My seat turned out to be at the back of the stage, just to the left of the huge 19th-century organ. From this position, I had a great view of the conductor’s face and the back of everyone else’s head.

When the choir came onto the stage they were not in the expected sailor-suits, Viennese style, but were wearing shirts and ties and sober blue double-breasted suits, with the little boys sporting dickie bows. Before they sang a note, I was impressed that most of them had no scores, and would be performing four Bach cantatas from memory, and they weren’t just going to be singing chorales either!

From the start, it was clear that the boys and young men of the choir were the stars of the show. And given the contorted face of the conductor, emphatically mouthing the words, I guessed that Martin Lehmann was also their choir-master, which I verified when I got home.

Their pitch, tuning and enunciation were impeccable and the blend of voices was excellent. All in all, a fantastic choir which also apparently wowed everyone when they performed at the Concertgebouw in 2012.

Their beautiful ensemble was evident in the chorale “Ich steh an diener Krippen hier” from Cantata No. 6 which, unusually, was performed at a magical mezzo voce and without accompaniment.

At the end of the concert, the orchestra, soloists and choir were given a huge standing ovation, which lasted well beyond the usual presentation of flower bouquets. It was clear that I was not alone in seeing the quality of the choir, and our thunderous applause acknowledging them was rewarded with an encore: part of the beautiful and moving “Nun sei willkommen, Herre Christ” by Carl Hirsch, which was sung a cappella.

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Ton Koopman

On Tuesday, Ton Koopman gets a turn at Cantatas 1 – 4, with his Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir. Although he’s just turned 70, he has no plans to slow down (according to a recent interview) and I expect that he’ll be playing the organ continuo and conducting at the same time, as he has always done.

Appetite for Bach

I was initially surprised that three performances of the same work, all given by early music groups, would take place so close together, and at the same venue. But there obviously must be a market: the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin was sold out, I imagine Jacobs did very well too, and there are only a few tickets left for the Koopman concert.

The Dutch, of course, have been keen on Bach for a very long time, and the revival of the St. Matthew Passion, which started in the 1920s, established a very deep-seated tradition which now produces dozens of performances of all types each Easter.

So, compared with that, three performances of the same work in four days is really not very much, at all.


Thanks to conductor Martin Lehmann who kindly e-mailed me from the road, with details of the encore, as he made his way to the next city in their eight-concert tour.

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