As you might expect, Herreweghe's account of the Christmas
Oratorio is as authoritative as any. His orchestra and choir
are lively but always precise and his soloists all excel. Most
impressively, Herreweghe is able to marshal his impressive forces
to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The Christmas Oratorio isn't the most coherent of Bach's
works, but Herreweghe brings it all together, not so much by
imposing architecture as by maintaining the flow of the music
and not letting any single movement stand out too much from
The general mood of this performance is surprisingly relaxed.
Even from the outset, the solo timpani in the opening bars sound
curiously flaccid, and the orchestral and choral textures that
follow are warm and round rather than punchy and focussed. The
use of such a large choir in a period performance is unusual,
but their precision and agility more than justify the numbers.
The number of orchestral players is not given, but the string
section also sounds relatively large. The wind soloists put
in some great performances, but Herreweghe always makes sure
that the obbligato lines are subservient to the solo voices.
Marcel Ponseele plays first oboe, and with more restraint than
on the Kuijken recordings. He also spends a fair proportion
of the work playing oboe d'amore. It is great to hear a virtuoso
performance on that unduly neglected instrument.
The vocal soloists form a well-matched group. In keeping with
this relaxed performance, none is required to take anything
to excess, giving the recitatives, and especially the arias,
an almost conversational feeling of flow. The lion's share of
the vocal work goes to Howard Crook as the Evangelist, and his
light but characterful voice is ideal for the part. He often
introduces solo numbers by the other singers and each time the
timbral similarities between them make for an almost seamless
transition. In any other context, these vocal performances could
be criticised for lack of power and projection, but here the
performances are ideal. Fans of Michael Chance and Peter Kooy
might want to track this recording down for their performances.
In 1989, both men were at the height of their powers, and Herreweghe
makes sure he gets the best from both of them.
So why the relaxed tone in so much of this music? Well, by reducing
the musical drama, Herreweghe is able to present the Oratorio
as a more coherent entity. Also, the continuously celebratory
major music that makes up so much of the work can get monotonous
when presented in more boisterous recordings – introducing a
sense of intimacy and poise creates more variety if nothing
else. The recording also cleverly counters a range of stereotypes
about the period performance movement. The idea that such ensembles
are always small, always play fast and always go for spiky,
angular sonorities, is countered by every aspect of this recording.
The choir and orchestra are large, the tempos are relaxed, and
the sound is warm. Herreweghe has plenty of austere period performance
recordings to his name, but he is clearly open to other ideas