Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Weihnachtsoratorium, BWV 248 (1734) (Christmas Oratorio)
Helmut Krebs, tenor (Evangelist), Gunthild Weber, soprano (Angel), Sieglinde Wagner, contralto; Heinz Rehfuss, bass (Herod), Berliner Mottetenchor, RIAS Kammerchor, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ Fritz Lehmann (Parts I-IV), Günther Arndt (Parts V-VI)
rec. Jesus-Christe-Kirche, Berlin, August 1955 (Parts I-IV); June, September 1956 (Parts V-VI)
Texts not included. Mono ELOQUENCE 482 7637 [3CDs: 166:38]
This was one of the pioneering recordings made by Deutsche Grammophon’s Archiv imprint during the Bach revival triggered by the 1950 bicentenary of his death. It’s a semi-legendary account which has never made it to CD, in full at least, until now. In the immediate aftermath of the bicentenary, complete recordings of the complete oratorio began to emerge pretty regularly; according to the Bach Cantatas website (www.bach-cantatas.com), Lehmann’s was in fact the sixth to be issued in as many years. However, it was clearly something of a trailblazer for historically informed performance – one gets a very real sense of the start of a performing tradition emerging here. It is inevitably a very different proposition to what we might expect to encounter in a modern recording, but few allowances need be made for the wonderfully fresh (albeit mono) DG sound, which wears its 62 or so years astonishingly lightly. For those listeners, and there are many, who appreciate an older style of interpretation there is much to be enjoyed here; a fact which transports the merits of this issue well beyond the purely historical.
The recording details and data listed above tell a story in themselves and conceal a tragedy which is difficult for this listener at least to separate from the interpretation. Fritz Lehmann (1904-56) was a celebrated Bach specialist and had been recording for Archiv for five years when he set to work on the present project. He had set down the first four cantatas by the late summer of 1955. Prior to completing the recording the following year, he was engaged to lead the traditional Good Friday performance of the St. Matthew Passion at Munich’s Deutsches Museum on 20 March. During an interval he suffered a massive heart attack and passed away at the age of 51. Günther Arndt, who had acted as the conductor of the chorus in the first four cantatas, was thus engaged to conduct the last two to complete the cycle in the summer of 1956. If the aim was to ensure continuity and thus preserve the legacy of Lehmann’s interpretative vision, to my ears, admittedly non-specialist in terms of 1950s Bach recording and performance practice, he succeeded admirably. The performance of the oratorio as a whole seems wonderfully coherent.
So how can this recording be said to augur the HIP phenomenon that would not start in earnest for another two decades? Part of this claim is down to the instrumentation: oboi da caccia and corni da caccia feature prominently and provide piquant, atmospheric colours, although it can’t be denied there are moments when their tuning appears less than reliable (The corni in the opening chorus of Part IV provide one rather jarring example). Nicholas Anderson’s fascinating and scholarly note underlines Archiv’s clear commitment to authenticity as well as identifying Lehmann’s pioneering role in forging the path towards a more authentic performance practice. Anderson quotes Archiv director Dr Fred Hamel’s fulsome tribute to Lehmann in the light of his early death: ‘We are left with his recordings, and even if they […] represent only a fragment of his artistic range, they ensure that his musical qualities will become more widely known. They are the testimonies of a conductor who did not follow prescribed paths but his own law. In accordance with that law, he was simultaneously a dynamic force and an admonitory conscience in German musical life. That is a measure of the gap opened up by his premature death. It will not be easily closed.’
Anderson also rightly singles out some of the legendary Berlin instrumentalists of the time who contribute greatly to the success of this performance. Of these, worthy of mention are Fritz Demmler’s ethereal flute in the tenor aria Frohe Hirten (Part II) which is beautifully caught by the DG engineers, while Fritz Wesenigk’s rousing trumpet accompanies the final chorus of the work in a truly festive and uplifting manner. The ensemble seem truly engaged throughout and certainly live up to their exalted status.
Of the vocal soloists the men stand out. While the soprano Gunthild Weber (The Angel) and the contralto Sieglinde Wagner are never anything less than reliable, I feel their contributions lack real engagement although some allowance inevitably has to be made for the context (and the age) of this performance. Moreover, I have perhaps become conditioned by the sophistications of modern recordings of this work, especially the very different accounts of John Eliot Gardner or Philippe Herreweghe and the exceptional soloists featured therein. The bass Heinz Rehfuss is splendid though – the aria Großer Herr, o starker Kõnig in Part One is an early highlight. However, I would argue that much of the emotional thrust of this performance is carried by the legendary tenor, Helmut Krebs as the Evangelist. He was a regular and trusted collaborator of Lehmann’s and his restrained tone and deeply humane approach to the role truly captures the essence of this work. The diffuse nature of Bach’s structure, its reliance on recycling and ‘parody’ can, I feel, gravitate against it and multiply the challenges faced by its soloists, especially the Evangelist. Krebs binds the whole together with style, dignity and tact, and for me his consistent beauty of tone and gentle authority is one of the revelations here.
The chorus (the amalgamated Berliner Mottetenchor and RIAS Kammerchor) is another. From the outset their contribution is immense – this is singing of real passion, freedom and fervour. They were clearly wonderfully prepared by Arndt – their input superbly tailored to mark the dramatic contrasts presented across the six cantatas. They make a big sound, but one characterised by both professional discipline and real generosity of spirit. They never overwhelm and frequently move. I can say hand on heart that I listened to the whole three hours straight through, and found the experience compelling and touching in a way that is often eludes contemporary readings, even those which are almost technically perfect. I felt sad when it was over, perhaps subconsciously so for Fritz Lehmann who didn’t live to see the full fruits of his heroic efforts.
I certainly hope listeners both young and old will take full advantage of Australian Eloquence’s enterprise in releasing this set. I also believe the same label are releasing some 1950s Bach cantata recordings from similar sources in 2018 – I for one look forward to hearing them.
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