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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248)
Dorothee Mields (soprano), Damien Guillon (alto), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), Peter Kooij (bass)
Collegium Vocale Gent/Philippe Herreweghe
rec. December 2012, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium
Formats: PCM Stereo/Dolby Digital 5.1/DTS 5.1
Subtitles: English, German, French, Japanese
Booklet notes: English, German, French
Region code: 0
EUROARTS 2059508 [145:00]

Philippe Herreweghe is one of the most renowned Bach interpreters of our days. He is especially associated with his Collegium Vocale which he founded in 1970, With them he has recorded many cantatas and other vocal works by Bach. There are at least two commercial recordings of the large vocal works, such as the Passions and the Mass in B minor, but to date he has recorded the Christmas Oratorio just once. That recording from 1989 may still be available. It is certainly a good one, but has some weaknesses. The present DVD brings a live recording of a concert given in December 2012 in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. It is a modern concert hall which is not the ideal atmosphere for a performance of one of Bach's sacred masterpieces. However, the acoustic is quite good, although I don't know if what we hear has been technically manipulated.
One could question whether a DVD is the most suitable medium for a performance like this. The merits of DVD for opera are evident: operas are meant to be heard and seen. In a sacred work like this there is little to see that adds anything essential to what can be heard. However, watching this live performance can be a nice experience as one may feel part of the audience, witnessing how the performance progresses. One may even see things most people in the audience will not have seen. That said, I wonder how often those who purchase this DVD will watch every time they want to listen to the performance. If I return to this recording - and I certainly will - I will probably just listen to the music without watching.
There is every reason to purchase this DVD. Over the years Herreweghe has made many recordings of sacred works by Bach. The choir was always the same, the Collegium Vocale Gent, one of the very best of its kind. In the early days Herreweghe worked with various orchestras, but then decided to extend the choir with its own instrumental group. The soloists he worked with varied from one recording to the next. Herreweghe has always been able to put down his own stamp and make the soloists sing according to his aesthetic principles. Even so, I have often felt that not every soloist ideally fits into his concept. In recent years he has worked mostly with the same singers - they also participate in the present recording. I consider them pretty much ideal in this repertoire.
Dorothee Mields has often been compared to Emma Kirkby, and there is certainly some similarity. She shares some skills which are essential in this repertoire: excellent diction and pronunciation coupled with the ability to express the content of a text. However, her voice is somewhat stronger and more dramatic and has a wider range of colour. The aria Flößt, mein Heiland is exquisitely sung, but Ms Mields also has the power to give full weight to Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen. Damien Guillon is one of today's best male altos as far as the performance of sacred music is concerned. His recording of Bach's cantatas BWV 35 and 170 (review) is one of the best available. The alto has one of the largest parts in this work, especially in the first three cantatas, and he gives generally outstanding performances. Bereite dich, Zion and Schlafe, mein Liebster are among the highlights of this recording. Schließe, mein Herze is just a little less convincing. If this were a studio recording I would have said that they should have recorded it again.
Thomas Hobbs has two roles. Firstly, he is the Evangelist, telling the story from the four gospels in recitative. He does so very well, partly thanks to his outstanding articulation. He acts like a true storyteller. Secondly, he has to sing several arias which contain quite a lot of coloratura and are technically demanding. His interpretations are very good. He deals with the coloratura with impressive ease and his interpretations are full of expression. Peter Kooij is the most seasoned interpreter and Herreweghe has worked with him almost from the start of his choir. He was also one of the pillars of Bis’s cantata project with the Bach Collegium Japan. The bass part in the Christmas Oratorio includes a number of accompanied recitatives of a quite dramatic character, and they come off well here. The bass part has a wide tessitura; Kooij is a baritone, but with a strong low register. The latter is needed in the aria Großer Herr, o starker König which is sung with authority. Kooij shows his softer side in Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen.
The choral parts are beautifully performed as one would expect from this choir. It comprises sixteen singers, among them the four soloists. The fact that they participate in the tutti gives this recording additional coherence. It is nice to see how the soloists communicate with the members of the orchestra in their arias. Among them the leader, Christine Busch, deserves special mention. It is also nice to hear and see Marcel Ponseele, one of the greatest players of the baroque oboe.
Some people say that Philippe Herreweghe feels more at home in sorrowful music, like the Passions, than in music like this. There could be some truth in that; his approach here is a little restrained. The opening chorus, Jauchzet, frohlocket, could have been more extraverted. The opening chorus of the sixth cantata, Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben, lacks a little bite. One the other hand, Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen, which opens the fifth cantata, is wonderful, relaxed and joyful. The sinfonia which opens Cantata No. 2, is nicely played, with a perfect realisation of the siciliano rhythm.
I recently heard a recording of the first three cantatas which opens some new perspectives. This is not the place to go into detail about this. One should not expect any new insights here. Views which have been developed over the last decades and find increasing support, such as the scoring with one voice per part, are ignored by Herreweghe. This should not be interpreted as criticism but as a matter of observation. After all, these views are still in the stage of theory: there is documentary evidence for this approach, but more research is needed to prove or refute the underlying views.

Herreweghe remains true to the standard in Bach performance which has developed since the 1970s: solo voices, a small choir and a small ensemble of period instruments. To date this recording is probably the best interpretation according to that standard. That is no mean achievement.
Johan van Veen