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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
Picture format: 1080i
Formats: PCM Stereo / DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: English, German, French, Japanese
Booklet notes: English, German, French
Region code: 0
EUROARTS 2059504 Blu-ray [145:00]

I've long been an admirer of Philippe Herreweghe's recordings of Bach's sacred music. His 1989 recording of the Christmas Oratorio on Virgin is one of my favourite recordings of this work, and his cantata recordings on Harmonia Mundi are some of the best recordings of this repertoire. His recent recording of Bach's motets, on his own label, Phi, is one of the best I've ever heard.
 
Herreweghe is no completist, recording just 46 cantatas for Harmonia Mundi and a dozen for Virgin. Unlike Gardiner or Suzuki, Herreweghe has never seemed interested in recording all of Bach's sacred cantatas. He has, however, set down the passions, masses and oratorios, and his work as a choir master makes these recordings among the best (review).
 
This film of the Christmas Oratorio is a good contemporary vision of Herreweghe's approach to Bach's sacred works. Applying a mostly historically informed performance (HIP) approach, Herreweghe uses a small choir (16 singers), and an orchestra of only 25 musicians playing original instruments. The soloists are part of the choir, and tenor Thomas Hobbs both sings arias and plays the part of The Evangelist.
 
As expected, the choir shines in this performance. The sound that Herreweghe gets from his choirs is exemplary. He is a master at getting the correct balance between the singers and instrumentalists, and this performance shows that attention to detail that makes his recordings so satisfying. While all of the soloists are very good, it's the overall feel that makes this delightful.
 
The Christmas Oratorio is both a large-scale and a small-scale work. There are many sections for choir and orchestra, but many others for a single singer with a solo instrument - violin, flute or oboe - and continuo. Again, Herreweghe gets this right, shaping these parts to fit into the broader canvas that is the entire six-part oratorio. For the Christmas Oratorio is actually six cantatas that were meant to be played on six days from Christmas to Epiphany; it was never meant to be performed as we hear it today, all six parts together. Herreweghe performs the six cantatas with no intermission, and with no applause (fortunately) after each of the six parts. This makes for a long listening experience at 2 hours 25 minutes.
 
It’s all tastefully filmed, though there's a camera on a boom that hovers over stage left at times, which must have been distracting for the musicians. The sound quality is excellent, with one exception. Two of the soloists - tenor Thomas Hobbs and bass Peter Kooij - are often a bit too far from their microphones when singing solo parts, making their voices sound a bit muddy. The other two soloists find their marks perfectly. All the musicians are dressed in black, and this gives a sombre feel; the Christmas Oratorio is a joyous work, and perhaps the performers should show this.
 
I concur with my colleague Johan van Veen, who, in his review of the DVD version of this performance 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." This is generally the case for such discs. I'll watch them the first time, but after that, I'll just listen, perhaps turning off the TV, or reading while listening. The visuals are never very exciting on a film of this type, and, while there is nothing to criticize, one buys this for the music.
 
Nevertheless, if you want an excellent recording of the Christmas Oratorio, this is for you. Good playing, good singing, and very good sound make this a satisfying disc.  

Kirk McElhearn
Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just music on his blog Kirkville.

Previous review (DVD): Johan van Veen


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