The opening chorus of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio represents High Baroque splendour at its most electrifying. On Sunday night, it was a spectacular launch for Bach Musica NZ’s final 2023 concert, offering the first three parts of this Yuletide masterpiece.
A spirit of celebration filled the hall, a fitting tribute to the dynamic Rita Paczian who, for decades, with her loyal and well-disciplined musicians, has provided the city with an astonishing range of choral music, featuring some of the very best local singers as soloists.
Inevitably it was her 45 choristers who first caught the ear on this occasion, returning after interval to thrill us again, replacing uninhibited shouts of joy with scurrying contrapuntal pleas. Throughout the evening, their succession of chorales, each deftly individualised by Paczian and some with telling instrumental traceries, intensified the momentum to this Christmas narrative.
Iain Tetley, as Evangelist, was the storyteller par excellence, guiding us on Bach’s journey in buoyant, shapely recitative and breaking into glorious song for his aria Frohe Hirten, graced by Catherine Bowie’s lithe and finely articulated flute obbligato.
Bach was extremely specific in his instrumental colourings for this score. The eloquent pairing of Alison Dunlop and Alison Jepson’s oboes d’amore exerted a telling presence. Particularly when, over Philip Sumner’s sprightly bassoon, they accompanied Joanna Foote and James Harrison for one of Bach’s most demanding duets.
Instrumentally, the star of the evening was trumpeter Orson Paine, called in at short notice and injecting the requisite celebratory blaze into proceedings. He was a memorable sparring partner for Harrison in the bass’ swaggeringly confident first aria.
Amongst the soloists, Stephen Diaz stood out as one might expect with a man who made musical history in this country as the first countertenor to carry off the New Zealand Aria Award and come runner-up in the Lexus Song Quest.
Diaz emanated the coolest of assurance throughout, characterising each of his three arias with consummate professionalism, effortlessly projecting a warm and burnished tone throughout the hall.