Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Christmas Oratorio BWV 248
Jana Büchner (soprano), Britta Schwarz (contralto), Markus Brutscher (tenor), Gotthold Schwarz (bass); Chamber Choir of the Frauenkirche, Ensemble Frauenkirche (Dresden)/Matthias Grünert
rec. live, 2-3 December 2011, Frauenkirche, Dresden, Germany DDD
Texts and translations included
BERLIN CLASSICS 0300427BC [72:56 + 66:59]
The last months of the year are filled with concerts of Christmas repertoire, and the growing list of reviews of Christmas discs at this site bears witness to the unremitting popularity of seasonal music.
Bach's Christmas Oratorio takes a special place in the repertoire. It is unique in its structure of six cantatas for various feastdays and Sundays of Christmas and the following weeks. There are other oratorios of the 17th and 18th century which are of fine quality but they are far less well-known and very few conductors or choirs would want replace Bach's oratorio with one of them. That also goes for Matthias Grünert who started his job as Kantor of the Frauenkirche in Dresden on 1 January 2005. "I simply do not want to give the piece up. It is part of me". It seems that most audiences feel the same. "Bach's trademark is too strong, his music too perfect; people feel that". Grünert has established a tradition of performing Bach's Christmas Oratorio in December. The present set includes a live recording from December 2011.
In 1945 the Frauenkirche was destroyed during the fire-bombing of Dresden. It was only in 1994 that the rebuilding and reconstruction started; it was reconsecrated in October 2005. When Grünert took up his duties he started to build a large choir and a chamber choir as well as an instrumental ensemble whose core members are drawn from the Staatskapelle Dresden and the Philharmonie. According to the information in the booklet the ensemble is "distinguished by its vital music-making in accordance with historical performance practice on modern orchestral instruments". As I almost exclusively listen to period instrument performances it is not easy to get used to this. It is certainly possible to achieve good results by applying the principles of historical performance practice to modern instruments, but there are also obvious shortcomings which are entirely due to the instruments rather than to limitations in the capabilities of their players.
While listening I also noticed some aspects which are probably due to the not uncomplicated acoustic of the Frauenkirche. The choir comprises 41 members but you wouldn’t know that from listening. The sound is rather subdued and lacks presence. The balance between choir and orchestra is less than ideal. That effect is only reinforced by the use of modern instruments which are louder than their ancient counterparts, in particular the brass. In the choruses with trumpets the balance is too much in favour of the latter. I also find the choir lacking in clarity; in particular the sound of the sopranos is rather dull. It could well be that the allocation of the choir which is shown by the pictures in the booklet is responsible for the opaque results. The choruses and chorales are in fact the least satisfying part of this recording.
The soloists are of a different standard. They are better recorded and have much more presence. They all have fine voices and are regulars in the world of historical performance practice. I especially enjoyed Britta Schwarz, who has some of the most beautiful arias to sing and does so brilliantly. She has a warm and pleasant voice and is perfectly suited to the intimate character of the alto arias. Jana Büchner gives a good account of her arias; in the famous echo aria 'Flößt, mein Heiland' the echo is not clearly audible. Gotthold Schwarz has a couple of arias, but the largest part of his contribution consists of accompanied recitatives. These come off very well thanks to his excellent diction and marked dynamic accents. Markus Brutscher sings his arias quite well, but I am not convinced by his interpretation of the recitatives. His diction is perfect, but the tempi are far too slow. As a result the recitatives are mannered and unnatural; a swifter speech-like tempo in the way of a newscaster would have been an improvement.
Returning to the choir: the chorales are mostly too straightforward, with few dynamic accents and too much legato. In various chorales some lines are sung piano which seems to be a relic of the romantic interpretation of baroque music. Bach has not indicated dynamics in these parts. In some sections the bass sings an accompanied recitative with a chorale scored for soprano. In this performance the soprano part is sung by the choir’s sopranos which is a rather unsatisfying option, in particular because of the distance between the soloist and the choir. A performance of this part by the soprano soloist would have been a far better option.
Lastly, the instrumental parts. The members of the ensemble play well and they are quite good in applying the playing techniques of historical performance practice. It is the instruments themselves that cause most problems. The trumpets are too loud which results in an unsatisfying balance with the vocal forces. One also misses the oboi da caccia, which are here replaced here by English horns. The violins try to play as stylishly as possible but they can't quite overcome their instruments' limitations. I am not sure whether they use gut strings. Baroque violins have a richer blend of overtones, and if you are used to hearing period instruments the Ensemble Frauenkirche comes as something of a disappointment. Things like articulation and dynamic shading which come more or less naturally to period instruments have something artificial when applied to modern instruments.
On balance I enjoyed the soloists' contributions most. I found the other parts rather unsatisfying. For those who attend performances in the Frauenkirche this is a great document to have, but it is not up to the competition on the international market.  

Johan van Veen
The contributions of the soloists are the most satisfying part of this live recording.