Bach’s 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 Handel’s 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 Bach’s doing it is somewhat banal.
Some of the chorales are beautifully sung. Others lack
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.