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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio), BWV 248 (1734)
An introduction to the Weihnachtsoratorium: Musical examples written by Bach expert Wieland Schmid and narrated by Christian Brückner. Quotes from: Gert Heidenreich, Udo Wachtveitl, Friedrich Schloffer; directed by Leonhard Huber
Rachel Harnisch (soprano); Anke Vondung (mezzo); Maximilian Schmitt (tenor); Christian Immler (bass-baritone); Solistin aus dem Chor: Sonja Philippin (soprano) (echo-aria); Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks;
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/Peter Dijkstra
Max Hanft (organ)
rec. live, 11-12 December 2010, Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich (BWV 248); Kammerton Studio, Berlin (Introduction to BWV 248)
BR KLASSIK 900902 [4 CDs: 75:10 + 69:10 + 56:52 + 58:38]

This BR Klassik release contains a live recording from two actual performances of the Weihnachtsoratorium. Sadly no sung texts are provided. Discs 3 and 4 set out an ‘Introduction’ to the Christmas Oratorio with musical examples. It is written by Bach expert Wieland Schmid and is narrated by Christian Brückner. The whole of the ‘Introduction’ is spoken in German and so are the booklet notes. There are no English translations. As a non-German speaker I am not able to offer any further comment on the contents of discs 3 and 4.
 
The Weihnachtsoratorium is a popular composition. Bach gave its first performance at Leipzig over the Christmas period of 1734-35. It comprises six parts with each intended to be performed on one of the six major feast days of the Christmas period to Epiphany. The oratorio is an example of Bach extensively reusing music from his earlier works. The texts were most probably selected by poet Christian Friedrich Henrici aka Picander together with his own contributions.
 
Directing the performance is choral specialist Peter Dijkstra, a BR Klassik regular, who has gathered around him a well balanced and nicely contrasted quartet of solo singers, the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin.
 
Rachel Harnisch a Swiss soprano is heard in the ‘echo’ aria from part 4 Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen with soprano Sonja Philippin singing the ‘echo’ all accompanied by solo oboe. Harnisch is also the soloist in the part 6 aria Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen to oboe d'amore accompaniment. Harnisch’s attractive voice is bright and clear, yet singing with fitting sacred restraint.

German born mezzo-soprano Anke Vondung sings in three solo arias. First is her part 1 aria Bereite dich, Zion, mit zärtlichen Trieben.Then the substantial lullaby to the baby Jesus from part 2 Schlafe, mein Liebster, geniesse der Ruh with flute and next from part 3 the aria Schließe, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder to appealing violin accompaniment. Vondung’s creamy timbre is notable as is and ability to project her voice so directly yet with reverence.

Tenor Maximilian Schmitt’s first flute-accompanied aria is from part 2 Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet. He also has an aria in part 4 Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben with violins and also in part aria 6 Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde strecken with solo oboe d'amore. Schmitt’s silvery fresh voice brings with it an appropriate piety.

Christian Immler has two solos arias. From part 1 Großer Herr und starker König to trumpet, flute and strings and also the part 4 aria Erleucht' auch meine finstre Sinnen with solo oboe d'amore. In his youth a former member of the Tölzer Knabenchor the controlled Munich born bass-baritone sings with devotional calm.
 
Especially worthy of note is the lengthy part 3 duet Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen to oboe d'amore accompaniment between Harnisch and Immler. Also significant is the part 5 trio Ach! wann wird die Zeit erscheinen? with solo violin accompaniment sung by Harnisch, Vondung and Schmitt. The trio bring sacred ardour to a text describing how the people desire comfort and nourishment from the birth of Jesus.
 
With a large number of choral sections in the oratorio the excellent Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks contribute substantially. They sing with unerring clarity and weight and firmly projected. The highly engaging period-instrument orchestra play immaculately. Although it hardly seems fair to single out sections I especially enjoyed the solo woodwind and brass contributions. In the last few years I have heard and reviewed several recordings by Dijkstra so I know the elevated level of expertise that he demands. I made his recent Sony Classical release of the Fauré Requiem and Poulenc’s Four Motets for a Time of Penitence with the Bayerischen Rundfunks and Münchener Kammerorchester one of my Recordings of the Year for 2012. Dijkstra’s direction is alert and unfailingly intelligent with just the right degree of forward momentum. The recording engineers have done a fine job with pleasing sound quality.
 
There are several recommendable recordings of the Christmas Oratorio. Firstly a stunningly inspiring version by Karl Richter with the Münchener Bach-Chor and Münchener Bach-Orchester from 1965 at the Herkulessaal, Munich. Richter’s quartet of soloists Gundula Janowitz (soprano), Christa Ludwig (contralto),Fritz Wunderlich(tenor) and Franz Crass (bass) could hardly be bettered. The recording forms part of a magnificent ten disc set conducted by Karl Richter titled Sacred Masterpieces. It’s on Archiv Produktion 465 701-2. Secondly there is the recording sung by The Sixteen and played on period-instruments by The Symphony of Harmony and Invention directed by Harry Christophers. The soloists: Lynda Russell (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (contralto), Mark Padmore (tenor), and Michael George (bass) are in remarkably fine voice. Recorded in London in 1993 Christophers is an impressive guide providing well prepared performances of real distinction on Coro COR16017.
 
Dijkstra directs a splendidly played and beautifully recorded performance. However, unless you are a German speaker you will be buying the third and fourth CDs in the set for nothing.
 
Michael Cookson


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