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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248)

[I] Katja Stuber, soprano; Raffaele Pe, alto; Martin Platz, tenor; Thomas Stimmel, bass
La Capella Reial de Catalunya; Le Concert des Nations
Dir: Jordi Savall
rec: Dec 17 & 18, 2019 (live), Barcelona, Palau de la Música Catalana
Alia Vox - AVSA9940 (2 CDs) (© 2020) (2.23'51")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/IT/ES/CAT; lyrics - translations: E/F/IT/ES/CAT
Cover & track-list

[CRC] Rocío de Frutos, Jeanne Lefort*, Elionor Martínez*, Irene Mas, Anaïs Oliveras, soprano; Eulàlia Fantova, Lila Hajosi, Beatriz Oleaga, contralto; Gabriel Jublin, David Sagastume, alto; Peter de Laurentiis, David Hernández, Ferran Mitjans, Carlos Monteiro, Albert Riera, tenor; Javier Jiménez-Cuevas, Francesc Ortega, Marco Scavazza*, Pieter Stas, Víctor Vilca, bass (*solo)
[CdN] Marc Hantaï, Yi-Fen Chen, transverse flute; Paolo Grazzi, Emiliano Rodolfi, oboe, oboe d'amore; Alessandro Pique, Magdalena Karolak, oboe da caccia; Josep Borràs, bassoon; Guy Ferber, Xavier Gendreau, Tom Are Skinstad, trumpet; Thomas Müller, Lars Bausch, horn; Manfredo Kraemer, Mauro Lopes, Isabel Serrano, Guadalupe del Moral, Elisabet Bataller, David Plantier, Alba Roca, Kathleen Leidig, Santi Aubert, violin; Angelo Bartoletti, Éva Posvanecz, Núria Pujolràs, viola; Balász Máté, Antoine Ladrette, cello; Xavier Puertas, double bass; Luca Guglielmi, harpsichord; Michael Behringer, organ; Pedro Estevan, timpani

[II] Elisabeth Wimmer, soprano; Elvira Bill, contralto; Andreas Post, tenor; Dominic Große, bass
Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben; Handel's Company
Dir: Rainer Johannes Homburg
rec: Jan 3 - 8, 2020, Stuttgart, Christuskirche
MDG - 902 2183-6 (2 CDs) (© 2020) (2.26'33")
Liner-notes: E/D; no lyrics
Cover & track-list

[HC] Charlotte Schmidt-Berger, Armin Köbler, transverse flute; Saskia Fikentscher, Hanna Geisel, oboe, oboe da caccia; Ingo Müller, Aviad Gershoni, oboe d'amore; Karin Gemeinhardt, bassoon; Wolfgang Bauer, Thomas Kiess, Xavier Gendreau, trumpet; Christian Binde, Jörg Schulteß, horn; Yves Ytier, Lorena Padrón, Eva Barsch, Lisa Kuhnert, Adam Lord, Jesús Merino Ruiz, Dóra Szilágyi, Judith Mac-Carty, violin; Bodo Lönartz, Gabriele Nagy, viola; Sibylle Huntgeburth, Rahel Klein, cello; Jörg Lühring, double bass; Lee Santana, lute; Christoph Lehmann, organ; Gregor Daszko, timpani


In the course of the baroque era several Christmas Oratorios have been written, although not all of them were called that way. The best-known from the 17th century is the Historia by Heinrich Schütz, and there are also shorter pieces by the likes of Johann Schelle and Tobias Zeutschner. In the 18th century, Johann Mattheson composed several Christmas Oratorios, and Italian composers also wrote such pieces. For most people, though, Johann Sebastian's contribution to the genre is the Christmas Oratorio. Hardly a year goes by without the release of at least one new recording. Last year saw the release of two new recordings, which are quite different in several respects. One of the differences is that Jordi Savall's recording was made during a live performance, whereas the MDG recording was made under studio conditions. That does not necessarily make a substantial difference, but in this case it does, at least in my experience.

On 1 August 2021, Jordi Savall turned eighty. During his long career he has explored quite a lot of litte-known repertoire. In recent years he seems to want to perform and record the great monuments of music history, which he has largely ignored in the earlier stages of his career. The Beethoven commemoration 2020 made him perform and record the first five symphonies by Beethoven, and during the Beethovenfest in Bonn 2021 he conducted a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Earlier he recorded Handel's Messiah and Bach's St Mark Passion as well as Vivaldi's oratorio Juditha triumphans. From that perspective it can't surprise that in December 2019 he performed Bach's Christmas Oratorio in two concerts.

The line-up consist of four soloists, a choir of twenty singers (5/5/5/5) and an orchestra with eight violins, three violas, two cellos and double bass, plus the usual winds and basso continuo. The small roles of the angel and Herodes are not allocated to the soloists, but members of the choir. The chorales in some of the recitatives are performed by the sopranos of the choir. In my view, that is a mistake, but today quite common. Also common today is the participation of a plucked instrument. It is omitted here, and that seems right. In the basso continuo, the organ is a small positive - again, as common today. It would have been nice if a large instrument had been used, but that was obviously no option in a concert hall like the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona.

I am happy to say that for the solo parts Savall had invited singers who are well versed in the style of Bach and generally the German Baroque. Stylistically they are at the same wavelength. The surprise in this company is the Italian alto Raffaele Pe, who - unlike the others - is not a native German speaker. However, his German pronunciation is very good. Martin Platz is an excellent Evangelist, who performs the recitatives in an engaging and speechlike manner, as a real storyteller. In his arias he is also very convincing. Katja Stuber delivers a very fine performance of 'Flößt mein Heiland', and her 'offensive' interpretation of 'Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen' is spot-on. In 'Bereite dich, Zion' Pe does not so much emphasize the sweet and the lovely, but rather the urgent tenor of the text: "Hasten to love your bridegroom with deep passion!" He sings the other arias with great sensitivity. Thomas Stimmel received his first training in the Tölzer Knabenchor, and that shows. He is decisive and powerful in 'Großer Herr, o starker König', but very sensitive in 'Erleucht euch meine finstre Sinnen'. He is at his very best in the accompanied recitatives, and a perfect match of Katja Stuber in the duet 'Herr, dein Mitleid', where the balance is just right. The orchestra is excellent and the choir is also a fine ensemble. However, the choruses and chorales are the lesser convincing parts of this performance. That is largely due to the venue's acoustic, which is a bit too spacious. The choir sounds as if it is larger than 20 voices. The chorales are a bit short on transparency and clarity; fortunately, the text is mostly pretty well intelligible. In the choruses I would have preferred a sharper articulation; the vowels are a little too bright. Although overall the chorales are sung rather well, I would have liked stronger dynamic accents.

Not all is perfect here, but then in which recording it is? All in all, this is a very good performance, which I have heard with great satisfaction. It outshines many recordings I have heard in recent years.

The second performance, under the direction of Rainer Johannes Homburg, was recorded in the studio, and there is always the danger of some kind of sterility, as all the single 'numbers' are clearly separated. That is the case here, and as a result there is little interaction between the participants. This is the main reason why it leaves me rather uninvolved.

The choir of boys and men is very 'authentic', but its size certainly is not. Its members are not listed in the booklet, but the sound and the pictures are telling. The Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben are a fine choir of its kind, and that comes to the fore in particular in those choruses and chorales, which are sung mezzoforte. When they sing loud, the sound is rather unnatural and strained. Examples are the opening choruses 'Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen' and 'Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben'. In the chorales with recitatives, Homburg is rather inconsistent. It is a mystery to me why in 'Er ist auf Erden kommen' (Cantata I) the chorale is sung by an ensemble from the choir and the others by Elisabeth Wimmer.

Overall, the soloists are rather good. Wimmer sings 'Flößt mein Heiland' very nicely, although now and then with a bit too much vibrato. The echo, sung by the treble Anselm Wegner, should not have been placed so far in the background. 'Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen' and the introductory recitative are too harmless. Elvira Bill has a very nice voice, which I have heard several times to great satisfaction. She does not disappoint here; especially 'Schlafe, mein Liebster' comes off very well. Andreas Post has exactly the right voice for the part of the Evangelist; his diction and articulation are perfect. However, the recitatives are too slow and rhythmically too strict. His arias are well done. Dominic Große has a voice which is appropriate for this repertoire, but in his interpretation he is the weakest link among the soloists. 'Großer Herr, du starker König' lacks power, and 'Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen' is rather bland.

On balance, there is little which makes me hesitate to recommend this recording, except that the interpretation is also too straightforward and not flexible enough. However, never I felt really part of the events, unlike in Savall's performance. That said, I realise that this is largely a very personal experience. Others may feel differently.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Elvira Bill
Raffaele Pe
Martin Platz
Andreas Post
Thomas Stimmel
Katja Stuber
Elisabeth Wimmer
Handel's Company
La Capella Reial de Catalunya & Le Concert des Nations
Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben

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