Bach's Christmas oratorio started life as six cantatas each
premiered on a different day during the Christmas period
in 1734: Christmas
Day, the two days afterwards, the Feast of the Circumcision,
the Sunday after New Year and the Feast of the Epiphany. Bach
obviously thought of the six cantatas as a single work as he
used various devices to link the work together; not only are
there thematic links but all six have the same structure and
feeling. Bach gives the continuo recitative to the tenor, but
there are also more lyric recitative sections, sung by the other
soloists with the addition of obbligato instruments. It is these
movements that give the work its distinctive tint, because compared
to the passions, the ratio of lyric sections to pure recitative
is far greater. If in the Passions, the predominant voice is
that of the Evangelist, here it is the soloists as a group who
dominate; each takes it in turn to impersonate other characters
in the story besides contemplating the story. The remarkable
thing is that much of the music was pre-existing, with Bach taking
it from secular cantatas. That said, there have been suggestions
that he may have had the Christmas work in mind when he wrote
the secular cantatas. And the new text, possible written by Picander,
fits the music beautifully.
Bach did not seem to have made his life any easier, as the work
uses quite a substantial orchestra with trumpets, horns, oboes,
oboes d'amore, oboes da caccia, transverse flutes and strings.
In all probability he used small vocal and choral forces, the
piece would work very well with one singer to a part. On this
recording though, we have the rather larger Lausanne Ensemble
and Chamber Orchestra with soloists Barbara Schlick, Carolyn
Watkinson, Michel Brodard and Kurt Equiluz under the direction
of Michel Corboz.
The recording was made in 1984 and uses modern instruments but
there is quite a bit of period performance practice here. The
strings provided plenty of air between the notes and the sound
is crisp and lively, with good flexible woodwinds and brass.
Corboz keeps things moving, without being rushed and the sound
is nicely lithe. Perhaps the trumpets overbalance the texture
occasionally, but then the writing for them is extremely high.
The choir sings with a nice focused tone, but Corboz seems to
have wanted them to mirror the playing style of the strings so
that for much of the performance they sing in rather a détachée
style. The singing is not heavy and is rather stylish but there
are times when I found them mannered, particularly in some of
the chorals and the opening chorus seems to plod somewhat. But
the issue is simply one of style, and taste, and there is much
Corboz has assembled a strong set of soloists, ones who would
not be out place in a period performance. Barbara Schlick has
an attractive, if slim, soprano which she uses with intelligence.
It is, however, quite a distinctive sound with a swift quaver
in the voice and a rather extruded quality to the tone. But with
such a nice musical account of the music, there is little to
really complain of.
Carolyn Watkinson has one of those beautiful warm alto voices,
which are still nicely focused without too strong a beat. I could
think of few other singers of the period that I would prefer
in this music. Tenor Kurt Equiluz has a somewhat edgy tone, but
one to which I warmed; he provides a nice contrast in timbre.
The final soloist, Michel Brodard on fine form, provides strong
The disc comes with only a track-listing; no texts or notes.
I have to admit that my ideal performance of the Christmas Oratorio
would be one reflecting period practice; both those of Gardiner
and Koopman spring to mind. But this intelligent modern instrument
performance has much to recommend it.