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Support us financially by purchasing this from
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 [142:00]
Claron McFadden (soprano); Bernarda Fink (alto); Christoph Genz (tenor); Dietrich Henschel (bass)
Monteverdi Choir; English Baroque Soloists/Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
rec: 23 and 27 December 1999, Herderkirche, Weimar, Germany.
Subtitles: English, French, German, Japanese, Korean
NTSC 16.9. Sound: PCM Stereo – Dolby Digital DTS 5.1. Region Code 0 (Worldwide)
Documentaries: J. S. Bach: ‘Jauchzet, frolocket!’ An introduction to the Christmas Oratorio [26:00]
Bach revisited – Sir John Eliot Gardiner in Saxony and Thuringia [26:00]
EUROARTS DVD 2045098 [2 DVDs: 198:00]

When I saw this release advertised I hoped it was a new performance by Gardiner of Christmas Oratorio. However, it turns out to be a re-release of the one originally issued by TDK and reviewed for MusicWeb International by Kirk McElhearn back in 2002. I’ve owned the TDK set for years. However, against the mild disappointment that Gardiner has not made a new recording must be set the pleasure that this fine and lively account is available once again. Also, from a personal perspective I’m glad to have the chance to comment on it because the two performances in Weimar from which this DVD was edited together formed a kind of upbeat to Gardiner’s great Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of 2000. I had the pleasure of reviewing all the CDs that eventually preserved that unique project so it’s nice for me to be able to bring everything full circle, as it were, with a review of the inaugural instalments of that venture.

In reissuing this Euroarts has simultaneously released it in DVD and Blu-Ray format. However, I see that Kirk McElhearn didn’t think much of the Blu-Ray, especially the picture quality, and advised that the extra cost of that medium was not justified (review).

While not enthusiastic about the Blu-Ray presentation, Kirk was very impressed by the performance itself and so am I. It’s edited together from two concerts in the Herderkirche – the Shepherd’s Church - in Weimar, a church and city with very strong Bachian connections. In one of the ‘bonus’ documentaries, Sir John talks of how moving it was to walk into the Herderkirche prior to rehearsing for these concerts and that feeling has been passed through to his performers for there is quite a sense of occasion about the music-making here.

The Monteverdi Choir, in which the four soloists often join, is on top form, singing with the precision, attack and attention to detail for which they are justly renowned. The choral work really sparkles. The English Baroque Soloists are no less impressive. The obbligati are a constant source of delight and the trio of trumpeters, standing behind the band on the left-hand side, add a real touch of festive glory.

Gardiner has a strong quartet of soloists. Christoph Genz and Dietrich Henschel were both to make several appearances during the Cantata Pilgrimage but to the best of my recollection neither Claron McFadden nor Bernarda Fink played any further part in the project, which is rather surprising since both make fine contributions. Maybe diaries could not be aligned during 2000 and, in any case, Gardiner was not short of quality soprano and alto soloists during the Pilgrimage. Christoph Genz is a very good Evangelist, even if he doesn’t quite erase memories of the sweet-toned Anthony Rolfe Johnson in Gardiner’s 1987 DG Archiv recording. Genz, who sings from memory, has a light, forwardly-produced voice; at times his timbre put me in mind of the great Helmut Krebs.

So, this is a splendid performance. I bought the DVDs when they were first issued and every time I’ve watched since then I’ve been delighted. The attractiveness of the package is enhanced by the two bonus features. The Introduction to the work itself is well worth seeing. There are some rehearsal sequences, some excerpts from the event itself and Sir John talks to camera quite a lot, reflecting on the work. Amongst other things he muses on the questions to which we’ll never know the answer: what sort of standards were there in Bach’s day and to what extent was he obliged to tolerate errors in the performances of his often hugely demanding sacred vocal music? That’s a question that resurfaces in the second documentary where we see Gardiner visiting several locations with very close associations with Bach. We see him in Eisenach, Bach’s birthplace and in the church at Dornheim, a small town near Arnstadt, where Bach was married to Maria Barbara. Naturally, there’s a visit to the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. At the time a major restoration project, begun in 1997, was nearing completion in time for the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death and the film focuses on the construction of the new organ. Perhaps the most interesting visit, however, is to an un-restored fortified church at Pom▀en, a little town just outside Leipzig. Bach wrote his cantata Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn, BWV157 to be sung at the memorial service in that very church for a local notable in early 1727. It’s not certain whether Bach took part in that service but it seems that he certainly knew the church. It contains a sixteenth-century single-manual organ, installed in Pom▀en in 1671, which is the oldest playable organ in Saxony. We hear a little bit of Bach played on it; the organ sounds a bit wheezy and in need of fine tuning. This documentary, short though it is, makes us feel in touch with Bach. Sir John makes the interesting if rather depressing point that there is no firm evidence of any approbation shown to Bach by the Leipzig congregations during his long service in the city.

For this reissue there’s a new booklet note by Christopher Jakobi. I don’t think there’s much to choose between this and the note that accompanied the earlier TDK issue. I have a strong preference for the picture that graced the front of the TDK booklet besides which the Euroarts image is much less pleasing.

What matters most is the quality of the performance itself and if you invest in these DVDs you’ll acquire a splendid and very satisfying account of Bach’s great Christmas present to music-lovers.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: Kirk McElhearn (DVD earlier issue ~~ Blu-ray)