> BACH Christmas Oratorio VIDEO 4509911243 [DW]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Christmas Oratorio.

Juliane Banse, Cornelia Kallisch, Markus Schafer, Robert Swenson, Thomas Quasthoff, Windsbacher Knabenchor, Municher Bachsolisten,
Karl-Friedrich Beringer.
Recorded in Heilsbron Munster July 1991.
Teldec video 4509-91124-3 (158 minutes) -


Crotchet  £15.99 AmazonUK   £12.99



Bachís massive Christmas oratorio is really six cantatas and was composed for the Christmas church festival at Leipzig in 1734. It was a time when Germany was questioning the strictures of Lutheran teaching and embracing styles and influences from other European countries such as France and Italy and, in addition, liturgical life was undergoing a move towards secularism. It may be true to say that after periods of Christian revival or reform there are often a liberal counter reformation

Readers of my reviews are aware that I am not fond of all male choirs such as we have on this recording. While I have to say that their performance is good in the main, the lack of female voices does deprive us of vocal colour. After a short while this lack of contrast does become wearisome to me.

It is also a pity to have to criticise a composer as great as Bach but the fact remains that with his tremendous output of music it is not always as good as one would hope. I do find passages which are sterile and rather ordinary which combined with the lack of colour in the choral parts did not make for a satisfactory whole.

I also found the conductor very Teutonic by which I mean so precise, cold and clinical that the music was rather expressionless. However the soloists did introduce expression and Juliane Banse and Thomas Quasthoff were by far the best. The two tenors did not have much expression although their intonation was good. The alto, Cornelia Kallisch, was often good but the whole impression was that the music did not sound religious or spiritually uplifting.

Comparisons are odious but many of us, rightly or wrongly, compare all oratorios with that supreme masterpiece Handelís Messiah where there is a definite spiritual feel and the music is so thrilling. Some of the arias and choruses in the Bach seem long and the repeats are observed. There are some other events along the way. The timpanist uses the wrong sticks and his attacks do not blend ; the solo oboists are excellent as is the solo trumpet.. his clever and masterful trills are super but, on a different issue, dotted rhythms lose out in this performance. The boys voices often sound strained and when you hear Banse you realise both the boys inadequacies and her genius. But the boys are brilliant in one aria in Cantata Four where Quasthoff is the soloist, but in that same cantata Banse has an aria in which many single notes or two notes are echoed by a boy treble and the difference in the sound is noticeable and unreal. No disrespect to the boy but if this is Bachís doing it is somewhat banal.

Some of the chorales are beautifully sung. Others lack mercurial smoothness.

Much as I love Banse the star is Quasthoff. From his first entry we have a voice and a presence rare in music. His vocal penetration is so good that he inadvertently shows the boys up. He has a wonderful duet with the trumpet.

The woodwind playing is a treat but, curiously, one of the most striking features is that when some orchestral players are tacet they seem to be enjoying listening to the music. That speaks volumes to me.

The less particular may find the performance delightful and so they must sample it for themselves. Certainly anything with Banse and Quasthoff in is worth having.

But it is the stiff conducting and the colourless boys (and young men's) voices along with a possibility of limited inspiration that deters me from this handsome video.

David Wright


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