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Christmas Oratorio

Sabine Ritterbusch (sop), Waltraud Hoffmann-Mucher (alto), Harry van Berne (ten), Jelle Draijer (bass) Alsfeder Vokalensemble & Bremer Domchor I Febiarmonici conducted by Wolfgang Helbich 
CPO 999 667-2 [70.11]

Joseph Eybler was a Viennese composer of the late 18th and 19th centuries. He was a pupil of Johan Georg Albrechtsberger (as were Hummel and Beethoven), and was a respected friend of Mozart and Haydn. He is believed to have had a close involvement with the composing and posthumous completion of Mozart's "Requiem". His Christmas Oratorio "The Shepherds at the Crib in Bethlehem" was his his first major choral work at the age of 29. Its musical style is a synergistic blend of "late baroque" elements (no doubt imbibed from his traditionalist mentor Albrechtsberger) together with the then modern style developed by Haydn and Mozart. Listeners can be grateful to the conductor of this performance, Wolfgang Helbich (Director of Music at Saint Peter's Cathedral in Bremen), whose resaerches have rescued this entrancing work from undesereved obscurity.

The overture open with dark and sombre chords in the minor key, reflecting the shepherds' apprehension and awe on approaching the manger in Bethlehem, but the predominant emotion of the whole work is one of undiluted joy and exultation, alternating with movements of serene contemplation. Certain movements call for special mention: No.4, "Das Kind strecht seinen Arm", contains woodwind playing, especially the melifluous flute obbligato, which forms perfect ensemble with the contralto voice of Waltraud Hoffman-Mucher. No.8, "Er ist's, Gott selbst in Fleischeshulle", and No.16, "Er ist in Bethlehem geboren" are bravura arias for soprano (Sabine Ritterbusch) and bass (Jelle Draijer) respectively, which would merit honourable places in Mozart opera or Haydn oratorio, with exhilarating brass and tympani which Helbich lets fly with unrestrained vigour. The pastorale music, obligatory in 18th century Christmas music, is here provided in the final chorus of Part 1: "Euch ward er geboren" by a particularly robust Chorus of Angels; serene it is, to be sure, but saccharin sentimentality is conspicuously absent.

The finale of the whole work, "Gott sey Ehre in der Hohe", is truly a Gloria in Excelsis of a chorus, set in triple time and performed at a tempo for which "scherzo" is the only possible description. What makes this performance so stimulating and high impact is the uninhibited enthusiasm of the orchestra, soloists and chorus alike, who so brilliantly do service to Helbich's lively, but never rushed, tempi. At the same time, much careful preparation must have gone into the vocal/instrumental and the strings/woodwind/brass & percussion balances, together with extremes of dynamic range, which the recording puts over with full force. This must be an exhilarating work to perform in. Choral societies seeking a shorter work than Handel's "Messiah" or Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" could do well to consider Eybler's work for Christmas performance. Even the final chorus alone would be a fitting climax to any Christmas concert.


Humphrey Smith

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