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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 (1734)
Malin Hartelius (soprano)/Kristina Hammarström (alto)/Jörg Dürmüller (tenor)/Detlef Roth (bass)/Capella Amsterdam/Combattimento Consort Amsterdam/Jan Willem de Vriend
rec. 24-30 September, 15 October 2006, Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC 76607 Hybrid SACD [72:01 + 66:56]

It may seem strange to begin a CD review by discussing the documentation but it’s right to do so on this occasion since the presentation of this set is such an outstanding feature. The discs are housed in a hardback book that measures approximately 6.25 inches by 8.5 inches. The book itself runs to seventy-six pages and in addition to the full text and English translation you get a lengthy and interesting interview with the conductor, a detailed note about the music and an even more substantial essay discussing the work in the context of the Lutheran liturgy. This excellent documentation is enhanced by the inclusion of a number of mother-and-child photographs, in black-and-white, by photographer Eddy Posthuma de Boer. I’m also happy to report that the typeface is clear and easy to read, which is not something that one can take for granted these days. The only defect was the absence of a track listing, which I suspect was a printing flaw in my review copy.

Happily, this release doesn’t just stand or fall by the documentation for the performance is of a comparable excellence. Jan Willem de Vriend tells us that he and Combattimento Consort Amsterdam have performed the complete Christmas Oratorio almost every year for the last decade – it’s unclear if Capella Amsterdam, a professional choir, has taken part in all these performances – and certainly there does seem to be a unity of purpose and a sense of teamwork about this recording. I’ve listened to it several times now and I’m struck by its freshness and by the pervading feeing of joy about it. There seems to be a sense of rightness, and the interpretation seems well settled, though never routine. In the course of a performance lasting over two hours one is almost bound to disagree with certain aspects but I have to say that such occasions were few and far between. I thought that the tempo for the opening chorus of the Third cantata, ‘Herrscher des Himmels’, was a bit brisk – though the performers can certainly cope with the pace – but for the most part I felt that de Vriend’s choice of speeds was consistently judicious..

Things get off to the best possible start with a jubilant, festive traversal of the very first chorus, ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket’. The trumpets ring out tellingly, every instrumental and vocal strand is clear, including a nicely judged bass line, and the choir excels. The thirty-two singers – eight to a part, with female altos - sound fresh and eager and both singers and players invest the rhythms with great vitality. By sheer coincidence on the morning that I began to type up this review I caught the opening chorus from Harnoncourt’s new recording. I suspect he is using a larger choir and orchestra but what struck me was how deliberate and emphatic it all sounded. The bass line was heavy, the timpani boomed and the tempo lacked any lift or sense of urgency. The BBC Radio 3 presenter described it as "measured" but I think I’d have said "ponderous". There’s none of that in this Dutch performance and the first chorus proves to be a harbinger of what is to come.

The choral singing consistently gives great pleasure. The chorales are uniformly satisfying. Elsewhere, the chorus ’Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe’ (Cantata II) has an infectious eagerness and they produce a lovely warm sound in ‘Falt mit Danken’ (Cantata IV). They’re bustlingly exultant in ‘Ehre sei dir,Gott, gesungen’ (Cantata V) and launch the sixth cantata joyously.

The orchestral contribution is no less fine. The sinfonia that opens Cantata II lilts irresistibly and the rich sound that the pair of natural horns adds to the mix in the opening chorus of Cantata IV is hugely enjoyable. The obbligato playing is uniformly excellent – sample, for instance, the natural trumpet in the bass aria in Cantata I or the expressive violin in the alto aria ‘Schliesse, mein Herze’(Cantata III).

There is a strong team of soloists. The tenor, Jörg Dürmüller, who I can’t recall hearing previously, impresses as the narrator. He has a fine clarity of delivery and his voice, which is essentially quite a light one, is produced easily, especially at the top. He may lack the sweetness of Anthony Rolfe-Johnson (for John Eliot Gardiner) or the sense of engagement of the incomparable Helmut Krebs (for Fritz Werner) but he’s still a very involving narrator. He and de Vriend pace the recitatives admirably and you feel drawn into the narrative by Dürmüller. He also sings his demanding arias very well.

Detlef Roth is a very satisfying bass. His voice has presence but is also sufficiently agile so that he gives a fine account of that noble aria ‘Grosser Herr’ (Cantata I). He also produces smooth tone for ‘Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinne’ (Cantata V). The soprano has the least to do among the soloists but I enjoyed the singing of Malin Hartelius. In particular I relished the light, silvery tone that she deploys in ‘Flösst, mein Heiland’ (Cantata IV). Her account of this aria is full of charm and I love the way she conveys wide-eyed eagerness when singing the simple but key word "Ja".

Her fellow Swede, the alto Kristina Hammarström, makes a very positive impression. To her fall some of the choicest arias in the whole work and she’s fully equal to their challenges. She’s suitably alert in ‘Bereite dich, Zion’ (Cantata I) and then in the next cantata she delivers ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’ with warm affection.

As I’ve already indicated, Jan Willem de Vriend directs the proceedings judiciously. He displays evident understanding and affection for the music and leads what I find to be a consistently satisfying and invigorating account of this wonderful music. Since the performance is also captured in excellent sound that is clear yet atmospheric this set earns a very strong recommendation on every count. I’ve enjoyed this recording of Christmas Oratorio enormously and I hope it will brighten your Christmas celebrations also.

John Quinn


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