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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio) BWV 248 (1734)

Lynda Russell (Soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (Alto)
Mark Padmore (Tenor) - Evangelist
Michael George (Bass) - Herod
Lily Crabtree - Angel, Echo
The Sixteen Choir and Orchestra
Harry Christophers, conductor
TFL TF91095 [2 CDs: 76.31, 70.47]
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Bach's 'Christmas Oratorio' presents perennial problems. Is it an oratorio or a cycle of cantatas? From the first, Bach regarded it as an oratorio, one which was performed in six parts. There was a recognised tradition, in the German church, of performing multi-part oratorios. Though few have come down to us, Bach would have known them. But the difference between the 'Christmas Oratorio' and the Passions is not just structural. The Passion story in the Gospels presented Bach with many opportunities for dramatic narrative. The Nativity story in the Gospels contains much less dialogue and what there is, Bach sets in a non-dramatic fashion. The 'Christmas Oratorio' is a far more contemplative, meditative work than either of the Passions.

I have always had a slight problem with the opening of the first chorus. In this, and similar places in the oratorio, it is all too easy for the flutes to sound under-powered as if they had strayed in by accident. This is certainly true here, indicative perhaps of a more overall malaise regarding orchestral balance. The timpani seem over-loud and balance only when the chorus is singing. The organ continuo is not always audible and can sound as if it is not connected to the rest of the performers. John Eliot Gardiner’s recording on Archive with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists presents this first chorus with a far better integrated instrumental ensemble. Here the balance sounds more convincing. Christophers' tempo is a only a little slower than Gardiner's (7'49 as opposed to 7'40), but the Sixteen sound merely steady and four-square whereas Gardiner succeeds in giving the music shape and lift, with the welcome suggestion of one in a bar.

The first recitative introduces Mark Padmore's exemplary Evangelist. Sung with absolute clarity of diction and with a consistently mellifluous tone, Padmore is one of the best things on the recording. In the following recitative sung by the Alto Catherine Wyn-Rogers, the accompanying woodwind sound congested, almost uncoordinated. The woodwind passages in the oratorio are important, whether solo or accompanying, and too often they sound congested, lacking clarity and line. There are a couple of moments, too, when the trumpets sound as if they are tiring on their high trumpet parts. Something a little more time in the studio could have rectified.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers sings the Alto solos with admirable firmness. In 'Bereite dich, Zion' Christophers' tempo is merely plodding, meandering at a jog-trot, rather than giving the aria space. Wyn-Rogers is equally firm in 'Schlafe, mein Liebster, geniesse der Ruh', one of the most lovely arias on the disk but Wyn-Rogers' tone sounds resolutely earth-bound. I have happy memories of Paul Esswood on the Harnoncourt recording on Teldec, and he brought to the role a clarity, transparency and lightness that is all too lacking here. On the Gardiner recording, Anne Sofie von Otter brings greater lightness and shape to the alto arias but she has the advantage of Gardiner’s greater sense of shaping the music.

Bass, Michael George, too frequently sounds a little effortful in the arias, especially when compared to Olaf Bär's mellifluous vocal character on Gardiner's recording. But George's meatier tones do work well in some places - especially the recitatives. The chorale and recitative in Cantata 1 works beautifully, though it does rather show up poor diction of the choir. The soloists' diction is admirable throughout, but in the chorales the choir seems to be sacrificing diction for purity of tone. Admittedly they make a beautiful sound shaping the chorale melodies, but at the expense of the words. And this is so noticeable compared to diction of the soloists. The Sixteen are not alone in this as Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir similarly fail to make enough of the words in the chorales. As is to be expected, the Sixteen are at their best in the choruses, providing some very exciting, shapely music making as in the chorus 'Ehre sei dir, Gott!' which opens Cantata 5.

There are some lovely things here, the opening of Cantata 4 with the Chorus 'Fallt mit Danken' and recitatives leading in to the Soprano echo aria 'Flösst, mein Heiland', nicely shaped by Soprano Lynda Russell and echo Soprano Libby Crabtree along with the beautiful solo oboe. These display the sort of relaxed music-making which this recording does best. But in a number of places the fine detail of the performance fails to live up to Christophers' conception.

This recording was first issued on the late, lamented Collins Classics label, in 1993 and at that time it received some commendation within the Gramophone, especially regarding Christophers’ ability to balance the contemplative, meditative aspects with the more dramatic sections. A comparison of timings between Gardiner and Christophers is instructive. Overall, Christophers takes 6' longer than Gardiner. Generally Christophers takes a more relaxed tempo than Gardiner; only sometimes is he marginally faster. The end result gives the music time to breathe, and this is one of the great advantages of the TFL set. Despite Gardiner's faster speeds, his musicians frequently sound more shapely and better integrated. Not everyone will like Gardiner's approach to the music. He encourages the Monteverdi choir to sing some of the chorales in a rather clipped and stylised way that will certainly not be to everyone’s taste but the high standard of music making on the Gardiner makes it a prime contender for your library recording.

TFL are to be congratulated on this reissue, but the box is let down by its booklet. There isn't one. All you have is a track listing of the CD. Because of my reservations this would not really be my first choice recording, but it is definitely a recording to buy to listen to when you want a rest from Gardiner's rather brisker approach to the music.

Robert Hugill


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