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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
(Christmas Cantatas)

Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern BWV 1 (1725) [21:32]
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 61 (1714) [15:45]
Dazu ist erscheinen der Sohn Gottes BWV 40* (1723) [16:26]
Arleen Auger (soprano); *Ortrun Wenkel (contralto); Peter Schreier (tenor); Siegfried Lorenz (bass)
Thomanerchor Leipzig; Neues Bachisches Collegium Musicum/Hans-Joachim Rotzch
rec. dates and venues not specified
Experience Classicsonline

These three Christmas cantatas were among the Bach recordings made by Hans-Joachim Rotzch (b.1929) during his time as Thomaskantor in Leipzig (1972-1991). I’ve heard some of his recordings before, including the present performance of BWV1, since a selection was included in the boxed set of Bach choral works that I reviewed last year. I enjoyed his work in that set and this disc confirms that largely favourable impression. A noted Bach tenor himself in his day, Rotzsch seems to display considerable understanding towards his singers, whether soloists of choristers, as well as a good sense of Bachian style. In particular, I feel his pacing is invariably sensible and he gives the music life.

He uses a chamber orchestra, which plays on modern instruments. The playing is pleasing though there are occasions, such as the opening movement of BWV 61, where the string sound is rather too rich for my taste. Listeners may also agree with me that the trumpet in the first movement of BWV 1 sounds a little too like a cornet for comfort. But in general the orchestral playing is perfectly satisfactory.

I don’t find it possible to assess the contribution of the choir as fully as I’d like. This is because they’re rather backwardly balanced. As a result, while the treble line is clear the lower three parts are not as distinct. Matters are slightly better in BWV 40 – perhaps this was the most recent recording? Overall, the choral movements are perfectly acceptable but I suspect the choir sounded much more incisive than the recording allows.

Of the soloists it is Arleen Augér and Peter Schreier who have the most to do. Happily, both these seasoned Bach interpreters are on excellent form. Miss Augér has a peach of an aria, ‘Erfüllet, ihr himmlischen, göttlichen Flammen’, in BWV1 and she sings it enchantingly. As I said in my review of the boxed set, mentioned above, you can almost see her smiling as she sings. It’s perhaps stretching it a bit to call this cantata a Christmas piece, since it was written for the Feast of the Annunciation, which falls on 25 March. However, I’d be sorry to miss Arleen Augér’s performance. Exclusion of the cantata would also deny listeners the chance to hear Peter Schreier in the aria ‘Unser Mund und Ton der Saiten’. It’s a florid piece and this fine singer is equal to all its demands.

Both singers are also heard to advantage in BWV 61. Schreier is eloquent in his recitative and then delivers an exemplary rendition of the aria ‘Komm, Jesu, komm zu deiner Kirche’, where he’s aided by the lithe, rhythmical tempo adopted by Rotzsch. In the aria, ‘Offne dich, mein ganzes Herze’, Arleen Augér is once again quite delightful, singing with a lovely tone that is at once pure yet also rounded. Sadly, she’s not involved in BWV 40 but Schreier features once again. He has a recitative in which he proclaims The Word made Flesh with great conviction, reminding us what a vivid Evangelist he was. The penultimate piece in the cantata is a taxing aria, ‘Christenkinder, freuet euch’, which features a marvellously inventive accompaniment by pairs of horns and oboes. Schreier does it with panache.

The other two soloists have much less to do. Indeed, Ortrun Wenkel’s contribution is limited to a single recitative, which she does well, in BWV 40. Siegfried Lorenz sounds a trifle blustery in his sole aria, which occurs in the same cantata, but the music itself is rather on the blustery side. Otherwise he’s heard only in a couple of recitatives, which he sings intelligently.

There is no documentation whatsoever apart from a track listing and the names of the performers. No details are given about the recordings themselves. However, the recordings were published between 1981 and 1984 and, from the documentation in the aforementioned boxed set, I discovered that BWV 1 was set down in the Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, Leipzig, so it’s a fair bet that this church was the venue for the other two recordings also.

This disc enters a very crowded and competitive field. However, unless you’re allergic to Bach played on modern instruments these well-turned performances under one of Bach’s successors at St. Thomas’s, Leipzig are well worth considering, especially for the excellent solo work of Arleen Augér and Peter Schreier.

John Quinn



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