When Bach Akademie Charlotte artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett explains the oddity, it makes perfect sense. Nothing that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote is more perfectly suited for presentation at the Charlotte Bach Festival than his Christmas Oratorio, even though the Akademie’s festival is celebrated in June. Bach never intended this oratorio to be performed annually on just one occasion. No, each of the six parts of the oratorio was to be performed on a different day of an extended Christmas celebration, extending to the Feast of Epiphany on January 6 and including New Year’s Day festivities on January 1, marking the Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus. Similarly, Jarrett is dicing the six parts of the oratorio into four concerts, two evenings at Myers Park Presbyterian Church and two Bach Experience matinees at Myers Park United Methodist, spreading out oratorio performances over a period of four days. Interspersed with these choral events, a harp recital at the Olde Mecklenburg Brewery, an uptown organ recital at St. Peter’s Episcopal, and a vocal fellows recital give the five-day fest extra variety and reach.

Recordings of the complete oratorio range in length from 2:15 to 2:45, and the timings listed in the wonderfully informative festival program guide add up to 2:28, just below the median. If 148 minutes of music divvied into four concerts sounds like small portions, never fear. Each of the oratorio concerts is fortified with at least one other Bach piece, and each concert is illuminated by a Jarrett intro or lecture, with demonstrations at the lunchtime Experiences. The opening concert at Myers Park Presbyterian began the cycle with Parts 1 and 2 of the oratorio, “The Birth of Jesus” and “The Annunciation of the Shepherds.” These delights were followed after intermission by one of two Sanctus settings that will be presented at this year’s festival, and a “Cantata for Christmas Day,” Christen, ätzet diesen Tag.

The opening chorus of “The Birth,” with pounding timpani and three baroque trumpets triggering the ensemble’s proclamation of “this Day of Salvation,” brought back ancient memories. My first encounter with the Christmas Oratorio was in the late ’80s when I borrowed it on a set of CDs from the Mecklenburg Public Library. There was a brilliant flash of familiarity moments after I pressed the play button, for I had previously dubbed a marvelous recording, by tenor/conductor Peter Schreier and soprano Edith Mathis, of two earlier cantatas by Bach, BWV 213, and 214, both written to celebrate auspicious birthdays. It was the opening of the latter cantata, written for nobody less than the Queen of Poland, that leaped to mind as soon as the Christmas Oratorio began, because the music and scoring are exactly the same. Only the text is changed. As Brett Kostrzewski’s program notes meticulously chronicle, both of the cantatas on the Schreier recording (with the Berlin Chamber Orchestra) figure prominently in the first four parts of this oratorio.

Looking up the recording on Spotify, you’ll find that the opening chorus of BWV 214 is by far the most popular track on the album, racking up more plays than the other eight sections of that cantata combined. So, Bach chose well, and the three baroque trumpets played live at Myers Park Presbyterian were far more thrilling than any recording can convey – and that’s before the éclat of the chorus layered on. When the 16 voices are trumpeting “this Day of Salvation,” they’re singing music that Bach previously set to “trumpets resound!” It was nothing short of thunder where I sat.

Tenor Gene Stenger was the Evangelist in both Parts 1 and 2, a warm and authoritative narrator. For anyone who hadn’t experienced the solo voices in the Bach Festival Chorus before, mezzo Sylvia Leith quickly established that they would be topnotch, with a creamy rendition of the “Prepare thyself, Zion” aria, preceded by a stirring recitative. Edmund Milly, singing the bass solos in the penultimate pair of movements before the concluding chorale and the return of the trumpets, kindled and rekindled a dignified fire. There were full texts and translations in the program guide, so the German can be followed word by word and understood, but if you were simply satisfied with the translations, they were alertly – and legibly – projected on both sides of the stage for even more comfort amid the sonic excitement.

Though the trumpets temporarily retired, Part 2 was not at all anticlimactic, unfolding more gradually with a Sinfonia and another Evangelist pronouncement from Stenger before the onset of the full chorus. Stenger parleyed briefly with soprano Arwen Myers, portraying the Angel, who announced the birth of a savior, in the City of David, to the shepherds. Milly reappeared almost as much in recitative as Stenger the Evangelist, with new voices taking on the arias. “Happy shepherds” was a special treat as tenor Patrick Muehleise joined in a jocund duet with principal flutist Colin St. Martin.

After the intermission and the brief setting of the Sanctus (which has a very special place in the Jewish liturgy as well), we had to be impressed when Jarrett told us that Christen, ätzet diesen Tag was the only Bach piece he knew of that was scored for as many as four trumpets. Co-principals Josh Cohen and Perry Sutton, mainstays at Charlotte Bach since 2018 and 2019 respectively, were joined this year by Dillon Parker and a Charlotte Symphony recruit, principal trumpet Alex Wilborn, usually seen with a modern valved horn. Written a full 20 years before the Christmas Oratorio, the Cantata for Christmas Day showed off different colors and vocal configurations, and Jarrett chose vocal and instrumental soloists who hadn’t been featured before the break, adding to the freshness of the performance.

The heavy brass-and-drums artillery in the opening and closing sections of the earlier cantata was as thumping as the bookends of the Christmas Day suite in Part 1of the oratorio. Thank you, Jonathan Hess, for your verve on the timpani. No Evangelist or storyline appeared here, for this earlier Bach work was more prayerful and preachy in its celebration. Laura Atkinson sang the long alto recitative, stressing how the birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. After tenor Corey Shotwell extolled the newborn as a relief from the fear and sorrow that “poor Israel had been oppressed [with] unduly,” Atkinson joined him in a superb “Come and bring your prayers to heaven” duet. They were only slightly upstaged by the more leisurely paced duet that preceded them, “Lord how blest is thine ordaining,” the true centerpiece between the brassy bookends of the cantata. Surely this was one of the highpoints of the evening. Principal oboist Margaret Owens shone in accompanying soprano MaryRuth Miller and bass Craig Juricka, ably embroidering the intervals between their vocals. The repose of this song beautifully combined the spirits of Christmas and Thanksgiving.