I can still remember being blown away on hearing the opening
of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio while studying for A-levels
at Crosskeys College of FE in South Wales. I can’t remember
which recording that was, only the mesmerising image of our
teacher removing dust from the LPs by rubbing them over his
pullover. Anyway, that rush of fresh musical air has always
stayed with me. With this new recording with Riccardo Chailly
conducting Leipzig’s famous Gewandhausorchester the feeling
of high-altitude musical flight is not only restricted to that
stunning opening, but is now drawn into the work like lettering
in a stick of Blackpool rock; to be experienced throughout the
The Christmas Oratorio consists of six parts which starts with
the story of Christ’s birth, and then follows the biblical narrative
through the adoration of the shepherds and the Magi. Then there’s
the escape to Egypt to avoid Herod’s massacre of the innocents.
It celebrates not only Christmas but also New Year and Epiphany.
Andreas Glöckner’s booklet notes give a usefully full account
of the work’s context, content and history, and the press notes
point out that, having first conducted the Gewandhausorchester
in 1986, Riccardo Chailly’s association with Leipzig is now
only one year less than Bach’s.
Having already much enjoyed Chailly’s Gewandhaus recordings
of the Brandenburg
Concertos and the St
Matthew Passion, I wasn’t expecting to be disappointed by
this new Christmas Oratorio. I am delighted to be able
to report that, even if you haven’t savoured Chailly’s ‘new’
Bach, this will provide you with a big dollop of the good stuff.
That wonderfully bracing opening chorus, Jauchet, frohlocket!
is taken at a cracking pace, but the mood is joyous and
unrestrained rather than with any feeling of rushed compactness.
As I found with Chailly’s St Matthew Passion, the approach
is one of brisk and relatively no-nonsense story-telling. Briefly
having a peek at timings, my old box of Helmuth Rilling’s 1984
Stuttgart recording is spread over 3 LPs, but his later recording
in Hänssler Classic comes in at 144 minutes, which is about
average; Masaaki Suzuki on BIS also comes in at around 145 minutes.
In other words, at just over 132 minutes Chailly’s recording
is one which avoids stodge and excessive lingering at all costs.
This is not to say that we lose much in terms of expressive
content. Sampling just a few of those beautiful chorales, and
you hear a wonderfully warm choir, phrasing their Bach as if
there could never be any other way of presenting it. There is
a nice sense of rise and fall or messa di voce, which
prevents the chorales ever becoming four-square and flat. Indeed,
if something like Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier towards
the end in part six doesn’t bring a tear to your eye then you
are built of sterner stuff than me. This expressive shaping
is also a strong element in the orchestral playing, which is
thoroughly sensitive and transparent, even at full blast, where
the trumpet rises in triumph. Tempi are not always tumultuously
fast either. That gorgeous Sinfonia which introduces
Part Two is taken with admirable restraint, lilting and almost
The soloists are all very good indeed, and I have no complaints.
Martin Lattke as the Evangelist delivers his recitatives with
plenty of engaging interest and without histrionics. Wiebke
Lehmkuhl’s alto voice is light, more like a surprisingly low
soprano than some of the thicker and, in my opinion, less attractive
voices we sometimes hear in more old-fashioned and operatic
Bach. This does sometimes mean that her voice projects less
distinctly in places where the voice sometimes explores the
lower reaches, such as with Schlafe, mein Liebster in
part two, but I’ll take the compromise in volume over the gain
in colour. Konstantin Wolff’s bass is suitably dramatic; once
again without an over-cooked sense of melodrama, but impressive
each time in communicating its message. The arias Ich will
nur dir zu Ehren leben and Nun mögt ihr stoltzen Feinde
schrecken don’t allow Wolfram Lattke much expressive leeway,
but with a light and bouncy accompaniment he sails through these
technically demanding arias in style.
One of the highlights is the echo aria Flösst, mein Heiland,
in which soprano Carolyn Sampson shines, reflected from afar
by Maria Stosiek. Sampson has a pure and highly attractive tone
colour, adapting at times with almost choirboy restraint, but
holding plenty of reserves of expressive power. She and the
other singers create a nice synergy in the ensemble pieces,
and for me there are no weak links anywhere in this recording.
If you weren’t told, you would hardly know that this performance
has been recorded on modern instruments, such is the acuity
of stylistic attention to period detail with which Chailly brings
out his Bach from the Gewandhausorchester. Of all the three
large projects Decca has released from this source I would vote
this Christmas Oratorio as the most successful. This
is not to say that the other recordings aren’t equally enjoyable,
but this just has that ‘vibe’ which leaps out at you with a
crisply welcoming embrace from your loudspeakers, making life
that much more worth living every time you play it. The meltingly
beautiful penultimate quartet Was will der Hölle Schrecken
nun followed by that glorious orchestral and choral finale
Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen together sum it all up marvellously.
This is a Christmas Oratorio which is not just for
Christmas, but which will bring you joy for a lifetime.