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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Weichnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio), BWV248 [2:24:20]
Rachel Harnisch, Sonja Philippin (sopranos), Anke Vondung (mezzo), Maximilian Schmitt (tenor – Evangelist), Christian Immler (bass), Max Hanft (organ)
Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunk (Choir of Bavarian Radio), Akademie für Alte Musik, Berlin (Academy of Ancient Music, Berlin)/Peter Dijkstra
rec. live, 11-12 December 2010, Herkulessaal der Residenz, Munich
BR KLASSIK 900512 [75:10 + 69:10]

This version of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was originally published back in 2012 as a four CD set. The last two CDs were taken up with a commentary and analysis of the work by Wieland Schmid. I haven’t heard that version, but for this re-issue we have just the discs containing Bach’s music.

The Christmas Oratorio contains some of the composer’s loveliest and most immediately enjoyable choral and vocal music. Despite the title, it is not really an oratorio, for it consists of six cantatas based on various aspects of the Christmas story. The first recounts the birth of Jesus, the second and third deal with the shepherds, the fourth with the naming of Jesus, while the fifth and sixth are concerned with the Magi. In Bach’s day, performances would be spread throughout the season, concluding at Epiphany (6 January).

Bach treats his ‘libretto’ with characteristically effortless variety; we have solos, duets, trios, an echo aria, choruses, chorales, recitatives either accompanied or just with basso continuo, and instrumental sinfonias. The orchestral writing is wonderfully varied, with trumpets, horns and oboi d’amore amongst the forces that provide such a rich palette.

There are numerous recordings of the work, some of them historic, such as Richter, Jochum and Ledger, all featuring great soloists. Once the period performance movement got underway, Harnoncourt’s epoch-making set with the Vienna Boys’ Choir (some of them taking treble solos) held sway for many years, arguably until the arrival of Rilling’s brilliant accounts of the late 1990s. Harnoncourt’s second ‘go’, of 2006 for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, has probably set a new ‘gold standard’, and it is to this that newer recordings are invariably compared.

Dijkstra, like Harnoncourt, has the advantage of an outstanding choral group. His Bavarian Radio Choir sing with tremendous energy and rhythmic precision, projecting the words clearly. Choruses like ‘Ehre sei Gott’ at the outset of Cantata 5, or ‘Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde’ that begins the final cantata, are thrilling, and bring singing of technical brilliance from all parts of the choir. However, these two, as well as the opening number ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket’ do show an affectation that I found irritating, namely a tendency, particularly in triple time numbers like these, to over-emphasise the main beat, the ONE – and then almost lose the ‘two’ and ‘three’. I’ve noticed this before in Bach performances by German groups, and it can be very distracting; it’s obviously thought to be a point of style, but for the life of me I cannot believe that Bach would have had his choirs sing in that way.

The chorales are sung with devotional beauty; particularly affecting is ‘Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier’ (‘I stand here by Thy crib’), sung a cappella and pianissimo. The orchestral playing is stylish and more than competent; but it doesn’t have the character and power that Harnoncourt is able to draw from his Concentus Musicus forces. In the solo numbers, I certainly could do with more clarity from the bass line of the continuo, which often waffles around ineffectually. The oboe obbligati are very well done; however, I found the violin solos disappointing - competent but rather insipid.

What of the soloists? Maximilian Schmitt is a lyrical Evangelist, highly expressive without going over the top alla Mark Padmore - who I know many German listeners can find distasteful. He can be dramatic, too, as in the section of Cantata 5 relating to Herod and the High Priests. Schmitt also sings the tenor solos, and gives a fine account of ‘Frohe Hirten’ from Cantata 2, coping manfully with the rapid figuration Bach demands. The other soloists all have light, youthful voices that are easy on the ear. Sadly, they do not have the sheer communicative powers that the singers in Harnoncourt’s line-up possess, and many of the numbers are enjoyable rather than compelling. I must say, though, that Rachel Harnisch’s performance of the lullaby aria ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’ in Cantata 2 – one of the work’s loveliest numbers – is delightfully fresh and innocent.

The recording is more than acceptable, given that it is of a live performance, though some of the obbligati could have been more closely balanced. The trumpet soloists in the final chorale play well, but it is not quite prominent enough, and the same can be said of some of the oboe solos.

All in all an enjoyable Christmas Oratorio rather than one to write home about; for me, Harnoncourt’s DHM version remains the most recommendable. John Eliot Gardiner’s recent Decca version is also well worth hearing – and excellent value.

Gwyn Parry-Jones
Previous review (original release): Michael Cookson



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