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