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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Weihnachtsoratorium (highlights)
Thomaner Paul Bernewitz (soprano), Thomaner Friedrich Praetorius (soprano), Ingeborg Danz (alto), Martin Petzold (tenor, Evangelist), Panajotis Iconomou (bass)
St. Thomas Boys Choir, Leipzig
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Georg Christoph Biller
rec. 7-13 December, 2009, St. Thomas Church Leipzig
RONDEAU ROP4042 [65:48]

This recording, as you can see, was made five years ago, and I suppose the acid test for this ‘best bits’ CD is whether after hearing it you would be tempted to go for the complete version. My reaction was almost wholly positive; I was reminded what superb, joyful music this is, full of colour and imagination, and typical of Bach at his finest.

A few things to ponder; the ‘soprano’ solos are sung by trebles from St. Thomas Church Choir - incidentally, ‘Thomaner’ above in the disc details above means just that – a choir member. These are beautifully done, musical and technically excellent; some listeners may simply miss having an adult soloist, with the greater musical sophistication that brings. There is a duet for soprano (treble) and bass on track 13 (“Herr, dein Mitleid’) which does sound a little strange at first, though the balance between the singers is in fact perfectly acceptable.

The tenor Evangelist, Martin Petzold, is, I’m afraid, the weak link here. He has an extremely light voice, with a quavering vibrato that I at first took for a nervous wobble. It turns out to be an intrinsic feature of his tone and I find it quite distracting. The alto Ingeborg Danz, on the other hand, is excellent, with a generous but flexible voice. Her lovely ‘lullaby’ aria ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’ is memorably beautiful.

The choir of St. Thomas Church Leipzig – who, let’s face it, do have something of a ‘pole position’ when singing Bach – are, as expected, quite wonderful. The treble line is firm, expressive and strong, while the lower voices have a blend of tone which, particularly in the tenor section, would be the envy of many British cathedral and collegiate choirs. Biller’s approach, as conductor, is unaffected but utterly stylish. This is not an ‘authentic’ or ‘period’ performance in the strict sense, yet it does have a deeper authenticity to it, that lent by an instinctive understanding of the music.

Finally a word for the wonderful playing of the Gewandhaus orchestra. Their quality ensures that many of the big moments are wholly successful. For example, the very beginning, with its thumping timpani, fanfaring trumpets and cascading strings, is every bit as thrilling as it should be, and that is maintained throughout the opening chorus. The horn-playing on track 14, the chorus “Fallt mit Danken”, with its running semiquavers in the second horn part, is wonderful to hear, and the trumpet playing, outstanding throughout, is especially brilliant in the final chorale setting, “Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen”. For me, the highlight of these highlights – is that a “higherlight’’ or a “superlight” - answers on a post-card please - is the “echo” aria on track 15, “Flösst, mein Heiland”. The trebles are delightful, but the oboe playing is just so beautiful – worth the price of the CD on its own.

On the whole, then, a disc of treats, either as a taster for the complete set of six cantatas, or as a thing of great musical enjoyment in itself.

Gwyn Parry-Jones