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Bach’s Christmas Oratorio offers antidote to messy world

Belgium’s Collegium Vocale Gent displaced the grandeur and drama of Handel’s Messiah with the intricately woven intimacy of the Christmas Oratorio by J.S. Bach at Koerner Hall on Friday night.

The beauty of the experience was not only due to Bach, but the 40-year-old ensemble’s fine work as founding conductor Philippe Herreweghe deployed more than two hours of music with a touch both light and direct.

Herreweghe, one of the world’s most respected proponents of historically informed performances, has made Bach one of this cornerstones — and it showed in every detail, from pacing to the choice of soloists.

Toronto has long been Messiah City at this time of year, so a fine performance of something else — especially when presented so beautifully — was a real treat.

Bach wrote each part of the oratorio to be performed during a different church service between Christmas Eve and Epiphany at the end of 1734, six years before Dubliners first heard Messiah.

The conductor chose Parts 1, 2, 3 and 6, covering the Nativity, the story of the shepherds and the journey of the Magi, which shows how we reciprocate God’s gift with our own offerings.

Four excellent soloists — soprano Dorothée Melds, counter-tenor Damien Guillon, tenor Thomas Hobbs and bass Peter Kooij — were embedded in the 16-member choir, all singing with an easy expressiveness that belied the score’s many technical hurdles.

The 23-member period-instrument orchestra was a model of transparent, balanced, rhythmically lively sound. It was fascinating to see how Herreweghe encouraged the continuo players — the core members of a Baroque orchestra who accompany solo voices — to emphasize a rhythmic bass line here and there to underscore a dramatic point.

The concert was also a rare opportunity to hear the haunting, silky sound of the oboe da caccia, a longer, curved, lower-voiced companion in pastoral passages.

Best of all was the deeply personal way in which Bach tells the story. Where Handel’s Messiah is all third-person narrative, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio contains chorales that connect the story with you and me.

When combined with such great music-making, this makes for a potent message in a messy world.

thestar.com – entertainment