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A Baroque Christmas
rec. 1976-2016 HARMONIA MUNDIHMX2908984.87 [4 CDs: 308:41]
As I write this it’s still October, but our thoughts turn inexorably towards Christmas as the clocks change and the light thins, so I embrace this sentiment as I write about this Harmonia Mundi release, a useful compendium with much to recommend it.
Its title suggests some sort of unity, but it’s a collection of previously released recordings, all of which have something to recommend them and, if it’s rather disparate as a set, that shouldn’t stop the intrepid explorer from delving in and finding much to enjoy.
The most substantial (and most famous) part of the set is René Jacobs’ recording of the Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, a festive staple if ever there was one. I’m no great fan of Jacobs, but he’s mostly on good behaviour here, despite some wayward eccentricities, mostly concerning the matter of speeds. The chorales are on the slow side, though mostly not too intrusively. However, the famous Sinfonia that opens Part Two, is super-slow, taking nearly eight minutes! It’s very beautiful, but it’s not in keeping with the surroundings. Karl Richter, in his modern instrument performance of 1965, is quicker, and I couldn’t shake the feeling – which I also had in Jacobs’ Matthew Passion and Mozart symphonies – that he was pushing the envelope for the sheer sake of being obtuse.
Elsewhere, however, there are wonderful things. The choruses, particularly those with trumpets and drums, are tremendously exciting, much more assertive than you’ll find with, say, Gardiner or Koopman, and the soloists are all on the very peak of their form. Güra is an exciting evangelist, alive with wonder at the story he is rediscovering, and Scholl is at his most ethereally beautiful, while the delicious purity of Röschmann is hard to beat, and Häger is vigorous rather than declamatory. Not everyone will enjoy the plucky theorbo that does so much to enliven the recitatives, but if you’ve heard Jacobs’ Mozart opera recordings then you’ll have an indication of what to expect, and I had to admire the way he exposes the architecture of the music’s inner workings in the busier ensembles. Not a perfect Christmas Oratorio, then, but the good generally outweighs the bad, and in a set like this it’s better to have it than not.
After Bach, the second-most represented composer here is Marc-Antoine Charpentier who was operating under very different circumstances at the French Royal Court. Therefore, his music is very different and he provides a welcome contrast. His Pastorales are dainty things, very different to the urban collectivism of the Christmas Oratorio, but they’re also rather lovely, treating the tale of the shepherds on their hillside and their response to the visit of the angels. It’s particularly good to have a French group presenting them here. Ensemble Correspondances sing this music as though they’ve been doing it all their life, and they seem to revel in every rounded vowel and softened consonant of the language, enjoying every syllable as they bring the music to well-rounded life. The instruments accompanying them are as Gallic as the singers, with some particularly juicy winds to evoke the shepherds’ pipes, and the strings caress every phrase with love, Sebastien Daucé shaping the piece like a master jeweller coaxing every ounce of perfection out of a particular specimen.
We also get Charpentier’s take on the famous O Antiphons that are associated with Advent. These are a world away from anything you’ll hear in an English cathedral in December, plainchant being decisively traded in for chic French élan. The choir’s Gallic pronunciation of Latin caresses the vowel sounds bewitchingly, and the instrumental playing is like something from an ancien regime salon, full of refined sophistication and some deliciously suave melodic lines. They’re rounded off with a particularly beguiling “Or nous dites Marie”, a delightful roundelay which I listened to in the morning and then had bouncing around my head for the rest of the day.
The fourth disc is a miscellany of instrumental and vocal music, but it’s nicely put together, and there are some wonderful things, including several lovely rarities. Corelli’s “Christmas” concerto (of course!) gets a lovely performance, with a slow movement of the most gorgeous warmth and an instrumental technique in the finale that charmingly impersonates a hurdy-gurdy. The earlier world of Rosenmüller’s Weinachtshistorie gets some wonderfully spicy winds - cornetts, I presume - to enliven the texture, and there is a carolling brightness to Concerto Vocale’s performance of Schütz’s Heute ist Christus geboren that I found very winning. The Buxtehude numbers set a fairly straightforward chorale text and tune against a lovely string background, and then elaborate it, both vocally and instrumentally, in ways that let you see the roots in which Bach’s music was grown.
The set closes with three beautifully characteristic French organ pieces, played by René Saorgin. The two Noëls, on the most delightfully reedy organ of the Sainte Chapelle du Château Ducal de Chambéry, are a treat, as is the Balbastre piece, played on the very different organ of Tende Cathedral with its occasional percussive effects. I mention both organs specifically because they both deserve a name-check.
As is mostly the case with such releases, there are no sung texts, but the booklet is very good on the background to the music itself, including some particularly useful information about Charpentier’s Pastorale. It’s also a super-budget bargain, which might swing you in its direction, but it’s more than just a stocking filler.
CDs 1 & 2 [77:45 + 74:46] Johann Sebastian Bach [1685-1750]
Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248
Dorothea Röschmann (sop)
Andreas Scholl (alto)
Werner Güra (tenor)
Klaus Häger (bass)
RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs
Recorded January 1997
CD 3 [81:20] Marc-Antoine Charpentier [1643-1704]
Pastorale sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, H. 483
Grandes antiennes O de l'avent, H. 36-43
Pastorale sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, seconde version, H. 483a
Pastorale sur la Naissance de Notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ, troisième version, H. 483b
Ensemble Correspondances/Sebastien Daucé
CD 4 [74:50] Arcangelo Corelli [1653-1713]
Concerto Grosso Op. 6 No. 8
Performed by Ensemble 415 Johann Rosenmüller [1619-1684]
Performed by Cantus Cölln, Concerto Paladino/Konrad Junghänel Dietrich Buxtehude [1637-1707]
Herzlich lieb hab ich Dich o Herr, BuxWV 41
Befiehl dem Engel daß er kommt, BuxWV 10
Performed by Cantus Cölln/Konrad Junghänel Heinrich Schütz [1585-1672]
Heute ist Christus geboren, SVW 439 3'00
Performed by Concerto Vocale/René Jacobs Louis-Claude Daquin [1694-1772]
Noël provençal in G Major Domenico Zipoli [1688-1726]
Pastorale Claude Bénigne Balbastre [1727-1799]
Quand Jésus naquit à Noël
Performed by René Saorgin