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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Weihnachtsoratorium BWV 249 [135:26]
Lynn Dawson (soprano); Bernhard Landauer (alto); Charles Daniels (tenor and Evangelist); Klaus Mertens (bass);
Coro della Radio Svizzera, Lugano
I Barrocchisti/Diego Fasolis
rec. RSI Lugano, Auditrio Stello Moio 30 December 2002 – 5 January 2003. DSD
AUTHENTIC ARTS 47714-8 [70:31 + 64:55]
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Unfortunately, this new recording arrived only a few days before Christmas so I was unable to complete my review it before now. However, this did give me an excuse – if an excuse were needed – to indulge myself by listening to Bach’s wonderful music quite a bit over the Christmas season.

The choir, orchestra and conductor were all new to me as was the alto soloist. The three remaining soloists were all known to me as accomplished singers of Bach and, indeed, of the music of the period. My comparisons have been with two performances conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner. The first of these is his studio-made 1987 CD version for DG Archiv, which I’ll call "Gardiner I". The second is the DVD of the live performances he gave in the Herderkirche, Weimar in December 1999 to launch his celebrated Cantata Pilgrimage ("Gardiner II").

The new version conducted by Diego Fasolis is on a rather more intimate scale than either of the Gardiner accounts. He uses a choir of twenty (five to a part) whereas Gardiner I has nine sopranos, five each of altos and basses and seven tenors. Gardiner II employs a somewhat smaller choir. However, I’d describe both Gardiner versions as being more public in style – and none the worse for that.

For instance, at the very start Fasolis really made me sit up at the very swift tempo that he employs for the opening chorus, ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket’. I got more used to it on repeated hearings but even so I still think it’s too fast. His excellent players and singers manage to articulate the notes well enough but the rejoicing seems too frenetic. Gardiner’s tempo is more conventional and, for me, the greater breadth and weight that he achieves, while still keeping the music light on its feet, works much better. Happily, after this there are few occasions on which I quarrelled with Fasolis's tempi.

Fasolis uses four soloists, requiring his tenor to sing the arias as well as the role of the Evangelist. Gardiner II adopts a similar stance but Gardiner I has the luxury of Hans-Peter Blochwitz, no less, to sing the arias, leaving Anthony Rolfe-Johnson to concentrate on the narration. The other main difference in the solo line-up is that on both occasions Gardiner uses a mezzo-soprano soloist, while Fasolis opts for a male alto. As a general rule I like to hear counter tenors in Bach’s vocal music (though I’ll gladly hear a good female singer instead.) However, the Christmas Oratorio is the one work where I have a clear preference for the greater warmth that a female voice can bring to this music.

In any event, I may as well get out into the open my problem – and it’s a major one – with this set. It gives me no pleasure to say it but Bernhard Landauer is simply mis-cast. Absent any biographical information on any of the performers I can tell you nothing about him. I suspect he’s relatively youthful. Certainly his voice lacks maturity to my ears. He makes a rather pale, white sound, which would not be so bad if he had a greater expressive range at his disposal. Throughout the performance he seems to be holding back. I hear no great commitment, no involvement, none of the sheer joy that a singer should feel – and be able to express – at performing such music and telling such a story. Generally his recitatives are bland, especially by comparison with Klaus Mertens and there is so much more in the arias than he seems to find – or to be able to express. Thus, in Cantata I, ‘Bereite dich, Zion’ is accurately sung and with pleasing, discreet ornamentation in the da capo, but Landauer seems insufficiently involved. He certainly didn’t involve me. A greater disappointment is the wondrous ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’ in Cantata II. Here I find Landauer lacks the necessary richness, especially in his lower register. What should be one of the high points of the whole oratorio is, frankly, prosaic and one can only find solace in the lovely wind playing. A comparison with either Anne Sofie von Otter (Gardiner I) or, even more so, with the superbly communicative Bernarda Fink (Gardiner II) is, quite simply, cruel. Mind you, Diego Fasolis must take some blame for the failure of this number. The tempo he sets is just too fast and is completely at odds, in my view, with the words. It’s a lullaby, for goodness sake!

Having reported that serious weakness in the set it’s a pleasure to be able to say that the rest of the cast is much stronger. Lynn Dawson is as delightful as ever. In the duet ‘Herr, dein Mitleid’ (Cantata III) she combines delectably with Mertens – and once again the wind players distinguish themselves. She also sings beautifully in the echo aria, ‘Flösst, mein Heiland’ (Cantata IV). Here she’s poised and gently expressive and she’s partnered by a splendidly eloquent oboist. Fasolis paces the piece beautifully. The only disappointment is that the unnamed echo soprano (from the choir, I assume) is far too distantly placed and also, to my ears, her tuning doesn’t always sound 100% secure, though she’s so far from the microphone that it’s hard to be sure. Miss Dawson’s other Big Number is the aria, ‘Nun ein Wink’ in Cantata VI. This she projects strongly and positively and I also like her nicely judged sense of drama in the preceding recitative.

Klaus Mertens shows his excellent Bachian credentials at his every appearance. His pacing and delivery of recitative are an object lesson as is his commitment to the music and his evident identification with the text. He’s splendidly authoritative in the superb aria, ‘Grosser Herr, o starker König’’ (Cantata I), benefiting from the support of a marvellous trumpeter. Though he projects the music strongly he never sacrifices the legato line. I marginally prefer his account of this aria to the very good performance by the lighter-voiced Olaf Bär (Gardiner I) but I’d say that honours are pretty even with Dietrich Henschel (Gardiner II). But all three of these basses deliver splendid accounts of their role. In Cantata V I enjoyed very much Merten’s stylish rendition of ‘Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen’ where his voice is well controlled and even. This is yet another aria where there’s some excellent and sensitive instrumental support to savour.

Charles Daniels makes a good Evangelist. He doesn’t have the same mellifluousness of voice that we hear from Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (Gardiner I) and to me he’s marginally less involving as a narrator. Best of all is Christoph Genz (Gardiner II) who sings from memory and is stylish and straightforward yet draws the listener in. It must be acknowledged, however, that he does have the advantage of singing live to an audience. Once or twice, especially later in the work, I felt that Daniels was a bit too measured in the delivery of his recitative but others may not share this view and he is certainly a very good Evangelist. It’s an unenviable assignment to sing the arias as well for, frankly, Bach allots his tenor some of the most demanding music in the whole work, as was so often his wont. The very first aria, ‘Frohe Hirten’ (Cantata II) is challenging enough but even more so at the swift tempo set by Fasolis. Daniels articulates the fearsome divisions cleanly and I was especially impressed with the way he negotiates, skilfully and musically, the florid second part of the aria. Having got past that aria what has the poor tenor to look forward to but ‘Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben’, the challenges of which await him in Cantata IV? Once again, Daniels is equal to the demands of the passagework, articulating it crisply and cleanly. One small point. At the start of the da capo Fasolis gets his violins to play a brief upwards flourish and he does something similar in the bass aria in Cantata I. I’ve not heard such a device used before but I find it very effective.

Throughout the whole performance the work of the chorus and orchestra is lithe, stylish and pleasing. For my money the choir is a bit too light, especially in the bass line where there’s not as much sonority as I’d like. I miss the extra bite and weight that Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir brings to a piece such as the chorus ‘Herrscher des Himmels’ with which Cantata III opens and closes, though on its own terms the performance here is very good. On the other hand the opening chorus of the next cantata, ‘Fallt mit Danken’ has a charming, legato lilt and its smoothly and affectionately done, the horns adding nicely to the ambience. Best of all, perhaps, apart from that lightness in the bass again, is the opening of Cantata V, the irrepressible chorus, ‘Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen.’ This infectious and exhilarating chorus of praise is given a clean and spirited performance. The rhythms are lightly sprung by the singers (as is the case throughout the work) and crisply articulated.

I’ve alluded several times already to the excellence of solo instrumental contributions. In fact the standard of playing is at all times splendid. I Barrocchisti is a small band, including eight violins, three violas, two celli and a bass together with the necessary wind and brass. They constitute a very flexible ensemble and the players make a delightful contribution, whether as a group or as soloists. The continuo organ and harpsichord are discreetly played; some may feel the discretion is a little overdone.

As I’ve already indicated, there are a couple of places where I take serious issue with Diego Fasolis’ choice of tempo. However, those instances are rare and overall he shapes the music nicely and with evident affection. He keeps the music nicely on the move and leads a stylish performance. His is evidently an intimate conception of the work and if you respond to that treatment then you’ll like his reading, I think.

The sound is splendidly clear and well balanced. I only listened in conventional CD format but the results were certainly impressive enough. The booklet, which includes some attractive black-and-white illustrations, contains a useful essay in English, French, German and Italian but, rather surprisingly, the text is only provided in German and an English translation.

There is much to enjoy in this performance though I find it impossible to overlook the unfortunate mis-casting of the alto soloist. My advice would be to sample before you purchase to see if you can live with the alto soloist. This wouldn’t be my first choice for Bach’s vernally fresh masterpiece but at its best it offers a refreshing alternative.

John Quinn



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