Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1739)
Weihnachts Oratorium BWV 248 (1734) [147.14]
Evangelist - Kurt Equiluz (tenor)
Barbara Schlick (soprano)
Carolyn Watkinson (alto)
Michel Brodard (bass)
Soprano in echo - Fabienne Viredaz (soprano)
Ensemble Vocal de Lausanne
Orchestra de Chambre de Lausanne/Michel Corboz
rec. Casino de Vevey, Switzerland, January 1984
WARNER APEX 2564 686217 [73.51 + 75.23]

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 to admire.

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 firm tone.

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.

Robert Hugill

This intelligent modern instrument performance has much to recommend it … see Full Review