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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Christmas Oratorio BWV248 (1734)
Elly Ameling (soprano); Dame Janet Baker (alto); Robert Tear (tenor);
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (bass)
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields/Sir Philip Ledger
rec. King’s College Chapel, Cambridge July and December 1976 ADD
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 2176252 [77:46 + 76:38]
Experience Classicsonline

I’ve long known this particular performance, having owned a cassette tape copy for many years, though I haven’t listened to it for a long time. This is my first encounter with it in CD format. Hearing it again reinforces its many positive features, not least the involvement of some splendid Bach soloists.
The performance uses modern instruments and therefore the orchestral sound is quite rich as compared to period ensembles. However, the playing is crisp and stylish – the obbligato contributions especially. The only reservation I have about the accompaniment is that the timpani are a little too prominent on occasion. The skimpy documentation doesn’t identify the obbligato players but the booklet that accompanied the cassette issue names them, enabling me to credit, for example, the silvery trumpeting of Michael Laird and the fine violin playing of the late Iona Brown.
Where the performance does have claims to authenticity is through the use of an all-male choir. The King’s College singers acquit themselves very well indeed and the trebles bring a nice cutting edge to the top line. King’s choir was - and is - accustomed to singing Bach. It’s often forgotten that not too many years earlier the choir had contributed to several of the early volumes of the Harnoncourt/Leonhardt cycle of the cantatas. The quality of the singing is evident from the very first chorus, where the choir displays conviction and bite, conveying very well the jubilation in the music. That’s the principal impression that one gets in this performance, such is the nature of Bach’s music. However, they bring other qualities too, such as light, fleet singing in ‘Lasset uns nun gehen gen Bethlehem ‘ (Cantata III). Only once was I disappointed in the choral contribution. That was in the opening chorus of Cantata V, ‘Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen’, where I detect little dynamic contrast - the music suffers as a consequence. Otherwise the choral singing gives a great deal of pleasure.
That comment applies to the solo singing also. I do have one reservation about the solo team, which I may as well mention straight away. For my taste Robert Tear is too robust as the Evangelist, especially in the earlier cantatas. Tear’s is not a particularly ingratiating voice and I much prefer a sweeter tenor sound in this work, such as one hears from Anthony Rolfe Johnson or Christoph Genz, for example. I also feel he sounds a little effortful on the topmost notes in some of the recitatives. That’s more noticeable in the earlier cantatas. I wonder if these were set down at separate sessions from the later cantatas when Tear was, perhaps, not in best voice. He does well in the arias, however, not least in ‘Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben’ (Cantata IV), where the demanding divisions are negotiated with clarity.
Elly Ameling is in admirable form, singing with fine poise and a consistent clarity which falls gratefully on the ear. I particularly enjoyed the pert ‘Nur ein Wink’ (Cantata VI), which is deliciously sung. She’s also excellent in ‘Flösst, mein Heiland’ (Cantata IV) where her clear, silvery tone, delivered at a lovely lilting tempo, is a delight. In this aria the important echo contributions are beautifully judged – I suspect the treble concerned, Jason James, was positioned at the far end of the chapel. There’s also a fine oboe obbligato.
With no disrespect to the other soloists, however, it’s the contributions of Dame Janet Baker and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau that in many ways define this set. Both were eminent Bach singers and here we find both on top form. It has to be said also that the alto and bass soloists have the plums among the arias in this work. Fischer-Dieskau is magisterial in ‘Grosser Herr’ (Cantata I), where he’s superbly supported by Trumpeter Michael Laird. I also relished the seamless legato that he deploys in ‘Wass Gott dem Abraham verheissen’ (Cantata II) and the burnished tone that he brings to ‘Erleucht’ auch meine finstre Sinne’ (Cantata V). Everything he does is invested with subtlety and understanding. This is Bach singing of a very high order.
And we get the same from Dame Janet. She’s poised and dedicated in ‘Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam’ (Cantata I) and then the aria ‘Bereite dich, Zion’, which follows immediately, is sung with wonderfully warm and full tone, though ideally I’d like the speed to be just a fraction swifter. To her falls one of the gems in the whole work: ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’ (Cantata II) and she gives an elevated account of this gorgeous aria. A little later in the work comes ‘Schliesse, mein Herze’ (Cantata III). Her seamless line and rich tone are much to be admired here, as is the eloquent violin obbligato, played, I think, by Iona Brown.
In general I like the way in which Philip Ledger directs the work. The chorales tend to be on the broad side, though far from turgid, and in general speeds are moderate, though not lacking in energy. Perhaps the speeds account for one of the drawbacks to this set, which is that Cantata III is split between the CDs, with the last three movements placed at the start of the second disc. What a pity that a mere 3:37 of music could not have been fitted onto disc one but I suppose a total playing time of 81:23 would have been just a fraction too extended. The necessity to change CDs is an unfortunate irritant.
There are one or two places where I wished Ledger had adopted a speed that was just a shade more fleet - ‘Bereite dich, Zion’ is one such – but in the main his tempi are sensible and musical. The one occasion when I do criticise his conducting is the chorus  ‘Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen’ where, as I’ve already mentioned, I don’t hear much dynamic contrast. If one listens to a conductor such as Sir John Eliot Gardiner and hear how he uses dynamics and rhythmic energy to bring the music to life Ledger’s approach sounds somewhat tame and unimaginative in comparison.
But overall this is a version of Christmas Oratorio that will give much pleasure. The recorded sound is very good, using the natural reverberation of the King’s College Chapel to impart a becoming warmth to the music. There are no texts or translations and the excellent note by Basil Lam that accompanied the original release is not replicated. Instead the documentation consists only of a track list and an extremely brief note.
Christmas Oratorio contains some of the most life-enhancing music that Bach wrote, which is saying something. This very enjoyable performance reminds us how in this work Bach distils the true spirit of Christmas.
John Quinn


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