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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "A Bach Christmas"

[CD 1-2] Lynne Dawson, soprano; Bernard Landauer, alto; Charles Daniels, tenor; Klaus Mertens, bass
Coro della Radio Svizzera, Lugano; I Barocchisti
Dir: Diego Fasolis

rec: Dec 30 - Jan 5, 2003, Lugano, RSI (Auditorio Stello Moio 30)

[CD 3-9] Ruth Holtona, Marjon Strijkb, soprano; Sytse Buwalda, altoc; Marcel Beekmand, Nico van der Meele, Knut Schochf, tenor; Bas Ramselaar, bassg
Holland Boys' Choir; Netherlands Bach Collegium
Dir: Pieter Jan Leusink

rec: 1999/2000, Elburg, Grote of St. Nicolaaskerk

[CD 10] Hans Fagius, organ
rec: 1983-1989, Mariefred, Church; Falun, Kristine Church; Uppsala, Mission Church; Leufsta Bruk, Church
Brilliant Classics - 94103 (10 CDs) (R) (© 2010) (2.15'35" / 5.44'00" / 69'42")
No liner-notes; no lyrics
Cover & tracklist

[CD 1-2] Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248)

[CD 3-9] Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn, cantata for the 4st Sunday of Advent (BWV 132)acfg; Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, cantata for the 1st Day of Christmas (BWV 63)bceg; Christum wir sollen loben schon, cantata for the 2nd Day of Christmas (BWV 121)acfg; Das neugeborne Kindelein, cantata for the Sunday after Christmas (BWV 122)acfg; Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes, cantata for the 2nd Day of Christmas (BWV 40)cdg; Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, cantata for the 1st Day of Christmas (BWV 91)aceg; Ich freue mich in dir, cantata for the 3rd Day of Christmas (BWV 133)acfg; Liebster Immanuel, Herzog der Frommen, cantata for Epiphany (BWV 123)afg; Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, cantata for the 1st Sunday of Advent (BWV 61)afg; Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, cantata for the 1st Sunday of Advent (BWV 62)aceg; Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn, cantata for the inauguration of the Leipzig town council (BWV 119)acdg; Schwingt freudig euch empor, cantata for the 1st Sunday of Advent (BWV 36)acfg; Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget, cantata for the 3rd Day of Christmas (BWV 64)bcg; Selig ist der Mann, cantata for the 2nd Day of Christmas (BWV 57)ag; Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen, cantata for Epiphany (BWV 65)eg; Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt, cantata for the 3rd Day of Christmas (BWV 151)aceg; Unser Mund sei voll Lachens, cantata for the 1st Day of Christmas (BWV 110)acfg

[CD 10] Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (BWV 664); Christum wir sollen loben schon (BWV 611); Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (BWV 614); Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich (BWV 605); Einige canonische Veränderungen über das Weihnachtslied 'Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her' (BWV 769); Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (BWV 604); Helft mir Gottes Güte preisen (BWV 613); Herr Christ, der einge Gottes Sohn (BWV 601); In dir ist Freude (BWV 615); In dulci jubilo (BWV 608); In dulci jubilo (BWV 729); Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 610); Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich (BWV 609); Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (BWV 733); Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 659); Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 660); Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 661); Pastorella in F (BWV 590); Puer natus in Bethhelhem (BWV 603); Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her (BWV 606); Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (BWV 700); Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (BWV 701); Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (BWV 738); Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schar (BWV 607); Wir Christenleut habn jetzund Freud (BWV 612)

In 2000 Brilliant Classics released its Bach Edition. It was put together from existing recordings which were licensed from other record companies, and new recordings. Later the company reissued the Bach Edition but replaced some of the licensed recordings with more up-to-date interpretations. One of the replacements regards the Christmas Oratorio. The first Bach Edition included a recording from former East Germany, with the Dresdner Kreuzchor and the Dresdner Philharmonie, conducted by Martin Flämig. In this set with Christmas music this recording is replaced by a more up-to-date performance under the direction of Diego Fasolis. (I am not sure whether this recording is also in the latest complete Bach Edition.) It was licensed from the Italian label Arts. Few details about this production are given: only the recording dates are mentioned. Therefore I turned to a review of the original set on MusicWeb International, where it was reviewed by John Quinn. The fact that no lyrics are included is no prohibitve objection as they are easily available from other sources, but it is not as it should be.

John Quinn mentions that the choir consists of 20 singers, five of each voice group. This is definitely too large. There is much debate about the number of singers Bach required. Independent of the interpretation of Bach's remarks on this subject, there is general agreement that he certainly didn't ask for more than 16. If one takes into account that in his time the upper voices were sung by boys - the soprano part but probably also the alto part - then twelve adult singers should suffice. The contributions of the choir belong to the defects of this recording. The sound is too massive and lacks transparancy. The performance of the chorales is surprisingly old-fashioned: all lines are sung legato, without any accentuation of words or syllables, whereas the fermatas are treated inconsistently. Tempi are often too slow.

Slowness is not a general feature of this recording, though. There are several moments where the tempi are rather too swift. The aria 'Schlafe, mein Liebster' is the most obvious example. It is a lullaby, but that doesn't come off. It is difficult to assess Bernard Landauer's singing here. I like his voice, but he doesn't get the chance to make this aria really blossom. The opening chorus, 'Jauchzet, frohlocket', is very fast, and so are the opening choruses of the Cantatas III and V. Too fast, I believe, especially as these tempi result in the rhythmic pulse being severely underexposed. That is also due to the lack of differentiation between the notes. One of the things I noted down while listening was "lack of subtlety". Many parts are pretty loud and often pretty fast - but where is the nuance? That is what I often sorely missed. In the above-mentioned aria 'Schlafe, mein Liebster', for instance, the orchestra is too loud, which is not in line with the aria's content, but also causes imbalance between voice and instruments.

Of the four soloists Charles Daniels and Klaus Mertens make the best impression. Some of the recitatives of the Evangelist are too slow, which is the responsibility of the conductor, I assume. Unacceptable and without foundation is the addition of strings, playing tremolo, in the recitative 'Da berief Herodes die Weisen heimlich' (Cantata VI). Lynne Dawson is a bit of a problem: she occasionally uses too much vibrato and the aria 'Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen' (Cantata VI) is dynamically too undifferentiated. She tends to dominate the other voices, in particular in the trio 'Ach, wann wird die Zeit erscheinen' (Cantata V).

To sum up, the Flämig performance was rightly dumped, but this recording of Diego Fasolis is not the ideal alternative.

The cantatas in the Bach Edition were specifically recorded for this project, and within a very short space of time. Upon completion of the series I wrote a review. I felt that the tight recording schedule was the main cause of the overall pretty disastrous results. It is an indication of my lack of appreciation that I have never listened to these discs since, except for one or two single cantatas. In a way that was a good thing because this reissue of a part of that production gave me the opportunity to find out whether a renewed acquaintance would lead to different conclusions. That wasn't the case.

It is tragical that most participants are quite skillful musicians and have done fine things. But interpreting and recording cantatas by Bach is not something you do between times. Only a short while ago I read a story about how much time Masaaki Suzuki invests in preparing a recording. That includes explaining the theological backgrounds to his interpreters. He also gives much attention to a correct pronunciation of the text. Pieter Jan Leusink hasn't done that, although in particular Ruth Holton was in need of it. But there are also obvious slips of the tongue which - due to a lack of time - could not be corrected.

The main problem is that the interpretation fails to explore the full depth of Bach's music. The tempi are often too slow, dynamic shading too limited, and the recitatives are rhythmically too strict. Most performances are simply dull. That is partly due to the singers - Ruth Holton and Knut Schoch in particular - but it is mainly the conductor who is to blame. Sytse Buwalda has been castigated for his singing, and it is true that there are some technical insecurities now and then. These should have been corrected and would have been with a normal recording schedule. But in his interpretations he is the most expressive of them all. Bas Ramselaar has taken all the bass parts, which is a huge achievement in itself. He has a wonderful voice, and I have heard great things from him. But here he has landed in the wrong show: you can't sing expressively when the conductor doesn't give you the chance.

I can't go into detail about all these cantatas. So I just give some examples. Schwingt freudig euch empor (BWV 36) comes off especially badly. The two main arias are sung by Ruth Holton and Knut Schoch. The arias are just wonderful - two of the most expressive of this set, but that doesn't materialize in these performances. Bas Ramselaar's relative good performance of his aria can't save this cantata. In Dazu ist erschienen der Sohn Gottes (BWV 40) he sings the aria 'Höllische Schlange' quite well, but much more could have been made of it had the orchestral accompaniment not been so feeble. Today Marcel Beekman is a respected singer who regularly appears with some of the best ensembles. But the invitation to participate in this project came too early. The aria 'Christenkinder, freuet euch' is rather bland and lacklustre, without any real interpretation, and the orchestral accompaniment doesn't make things any better.

Cantata 61, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, opens with a chorus which Bach calls 'ouverture' - a reference to the French overture à la Lully. Its character is too little explored and the grandeur one associates with a French overture is absent. The tenor recitative is too slow and too strict in time, which is followed by the tenor aria 'Komm, Jesu, komm' which Knut Schoch fails to bring to life. The soprano gets an aria which is moving in its naiveté, 'Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze'. Ruth Holton fails to explore its character. Her voice is sometimes called 'boyish', but I prefer a real boy singer. The treble Seppi Kronwitter has been much criticised for his performance under Harnoncourt (Teldec), but in expression he surpasses almost any other singer. His pronunciation is also faultless, in contrast to Ms Holton's ("kommt" instead of "kömmt"). Cantata 62, with the same title, includes one of the few contributions of Nico van der Meel, who had done great things at that time and still does. But in this series his performances never make any real impression, and that is also the case here, in his aria 'Bewundert, o Menschen'. The bass aria 'Streite, siege, starker Held' is another example of a piece where Bas Ramselaar strikes the right chord, but is frustrated by the conductor who seems not to understand the dramatic side of Bach's cantatas.

Last example: Cantata 64, Sehet, welch eine Liebe hat uns der Vater erzeiget. We meet here Marjon Strijk, a very young singer at the time, with a very nice voice. She certainly sings beautifully, but with too little expression. As in the case of Beekman her participation came too early. 'Von der Welt verlang ich nichts' is beautifully sung by Sytse Buwalda, but some slight insecurities should have been corrected.

My last notes regard the choir. It was a very fine choir when this project started, but its singing in the style of English cathedral choirs didn't make it particularly suited for Bach's cantatas. In too many choruses there is plenty of sound but little attention to the text. Too often the trebles sound stressed and they push out the sound at the expense of the delivery. Some sections of the choir sound unattractive. In some choruses there is a lack of balance between choir and orchestra because the former is too big in comparison with the latter. When I first listened to these recordings I became more and more depressed about the missed opportunities. Nothing has changed. It has also done the choir no good. It deteriorated audibly as the project progressed. It has never returned to its former glory.

By the way, I don't understand why no less than seven discs were needed for the cantatas. Their playing time is so short that no more than six would have been needed, even less when Cantata 119 (Preise, Jerusalem, den Herrn) had been left out. It has nothing to do with Advent or Christmas, and its inclusion in this set is inexplicable.

The last disc is devoted to organ music. Its inclusion is a bit odd, as lovers of Bach's vocal music do not necessarily care that much about his organ music, or the instrument as such. That said, I have always been very happy with the inclusion of Hans Fagius' complete recording in the Bach Edition. It was licensed from the Swedish label BIS which released it in the 1980s. For some reasons it never received that much attention. Fagius wasn't particularly known as a specialist in baroque organ music, and he chose organs from Sweden rather than the better-known instruments by the likes of Silbermann or Hildebrandt which are often used. These organs are mostly historical or reconstructions of historical organs and they turn out to be very much suited to Bach's organ works. I was already investigating this set before it appeared in the Bach Edition, and when I learned that his recording was included I was delighted. Of course, considering the large number of Bach's organ works and the number of recordings on the market it is always possible to find a better recording of a specific piece. But the set as a whole is very fine, and this selection of Christmas music bears witness to that. The intimate and playful Pastorella in F (BWV 590) comes off perfectly. The grandeur of the German Magnificat, Meine Seele erhebt den Herren (BWV 733), is impressive. The inclusion of various arrangements of one chorale - Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland and Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her - is illuminating and so is the differentiated treatment by Hans Fagius. His tempi and his choice of registration are convincing. If you don't need all Bach's organ music this disc is a good alternative. But if you like Bach's organ music I can only advise to purchase the complete set from the Bach Edition. It is worth every penny.

That doesn't change my conclusion about this set as a whole though: if you want a Christmas with Bach you better look for something else.

Johan van Veen (© 2011)

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