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

Regula Mühlemann, Anna Lucia Richter, soprano; Wiebke Lehmkuhl, contralto; Sebastian Kohlhepp, tenor; Michael Nagy, bass
Gaechinger Cantorey
Dir: Hans-Christoph Rademann

rec: Dec 3 - 4, 2016 (live), Jan 7 - 9, 2017, Stuttgart, Liederhalle
Carus - 83.312 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (2.31'45")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

When in 2013 Hans-Christoph Rademann succeeded Helmuth Rilling as director of the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart, it was to be expected that major changes would take place. As he is an exponent of historical performance practice, he said goodbye to the Bach Collegium Stuttgart, which played on modern instruments, and which played a central role in the recording of the orchestral and vocal works of Johann Sebastian Bach, included in the Hänssler Bach Edition of 2000. At first he continued to perform with Rilling's choir, the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart. The recording of Bach's Mass in b minor, together with the period-instrument Freiburger Barockorchester, might have been its last major contribution to the Bach discography. Rademann decided to establish an entirely new ensemble, called the Gaechinger Cantorey, which includes both singers and instrumentalists.

This is in line with the practice in Bach's time. There was no formal separation between choir and orchestra, as all music was intended for an ensemble of voices and instruments. Unfortunately Rademann's approach is rather inconsistent. Firstly, in his recordings and performances the solo parts are sung by external forces, who do not participate in the tutti. Secondly, Rademann's choir is larger than any choir Bach ever has seen and probably also larger than any choir he may have liked to have. As most music lovers know, some performers are convinced that Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott correctly state that Bach mostly performed his sacred music with solo voices, in some cases with additional ripienists. Even if we take into account that this still finds itself in the stage of theory, there can be little doubt that a choir of 30 voices is too large for Bach's sacred works.

It was also to be expected that Rademann was going to record on disc Bach's large-scale vocal works. There can be little doubt that they will strongly differ from those of Helmuth Rilling, who claimed that his interpretations were influenced by historical performance practice - something very few people did notice. Only recently I reviewed Rademann's above-mentioned recording of the Mass in b minor, which did not really satisfy me. The Christmas Oratorio is his second recording, and the first with the new Gaechinger Cantorey.

Overall I think that the vocal part of the ensemble is a real improvement in comparison with the old Gächinger Kantorei. In the Mass I found the latter's sound rather dull and flat; that is not the case here. The choral parts are very well sung, vivid and powerful when needed, as in particular some opening choruses demonstrate. There is also nothing to complain about the orchestral part; the obbligato parts in the arias are also nicely played.

Some of the soloists are well-known in the world of early music, others less so. As is so often the case with recordings of baroque vocal music, the contributions of the soloists are different, which results in a considerable amount of inconsistency. In the present recording Anna Lucia Richter and Regula Mühlemann share the soprano parts. The former is the most stylish, whereas the latter's incessant vibrato is one of the disappointments of this recording. Wiebke Lehmkuhl is a genuine contralto with a good depth, but the other end of her tessitura is just as well-developed. I was quite impressed by her interpretation of the alto solos in Hermann Max's recording of the Christmas Oratorio. She does well here too, but unfortunately too often some vibrato creeps in. That said, her diction and articulation are as good as ever. Sebastian Kohlhepp has a nice voice; he sings his arias quite well, but I am less enthusiastic about his interpretation of the recitatives of the Evangelist. It should have been more declamatory, and he should have taken more rhythmic freedom. Overall this part is a bit too restrained and lacks authority. The latter is something that Michael Nagy, whom I had never heard before, has in abundance. He is certainly not free of vibrato either, but it is almost overshadowed by his very fine singing. I like his voice, and admire his phrasing and articulation, and sense of rhythm. His contributions are among the best parts of this recording.

Let's have a look at the various cantatas of this oratorio. The first cantata opens with an excellent performance of the chorus 'Jauchzet, frohlocket'. It has the right amount if dynamic accents and the tempo is just right. At the end of the second disc we find the same music with the original text from Cantata BWV 214: "Tönet, ihr Pauken". Wiebke Lehmkuhl delivers a fine interpretation of the aria 'Bereite dich, Zion'. The ensuing chorale 'Wie soll ich dich empfangen' is a bit too slow and short on dynamic accents. In the chorale with recitative 'Er ist auf Erden kommen arm' Regula Mühlemann and Michael Nagy are not a very good match, due to the former's marked vibrato. Nagy's singing is truly rhetorical and declamatory. Despite some vibrato his performance of 'Großer Herr, du starker König' is quite impressive.

In the second cantata the tenor aria 'Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet' should have been a bit faster, in accordance with the text. It just misses a little urgency. Why the chorale 'Schaut hin, dort liegt im finstern Stall' is sung so slowly, is a mystery to me. Wiebke Lehmkuhl shows impressive breath control in the aria 'Schlafe mein Liebster'. The chorus of the angels, 'Ehre sei Gott', is sung in a fittingly exuberant manner.

The cantata No. 3 opens with the chorus 'Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen'. It is one of the fastest performances I know, and it works very well. The chorale 'Dies hat er alles uns getan' is sung with too much legato. Anna Lucia Richter and Michael Nagy are in good form in the duet 'Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen'. They deliver an engaging performance which makes a lasting impression.

'Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben', the chorus that opens the fourth cantata, is performed in a truly dance-like manner, perfectly illustrating the text. 'Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen' is nicely sung by Anna Lucia Richter, but with a little too much vibrato. The echo is, as is common habit, pretty far in the background. I have much doubt about this practice. The tenor aria 'Ich will dir zu Ehren leben' is well articulated. The tempo is rather moderate; I would prefer a little faster tempo, but that is largely a matter of taste.

'Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen' opens the fifth cantata; the tempo is not too fast, and that seems just right, as it has a nice flow. Michael Nagy delivers a fine performance of the aria 'Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen', but the trio 'Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen', suffers from Regula Mühlemann's vibrato. The balance between the three voices is less than ideal, as Kohlhepp's voice is not that powerful.

The last cantata opens with the chorus 'Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben', which is sung with marked dynamic accents and has much bite. I missed a bit of that in the soprano aria 'Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen', which is too harmless; Anna Lucia Richter's approach should have been a bit more 'aggressive'. The chorale 'Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier' is very slow, in an almost romantic manner. The closing chorale 'Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen' once again proves the quality of the choir.

As one may gather from this review I am not unequivocally enthusiastic about this recording. There are just a little too many weaknesses and overall the performance suffers of inconsistencies. That said, the choral sections are among the best I have heard in recent years. Anna Lucia Richter and Wiebke Lehmkuhl are pretty good, and despite a bit too much vibrato I am really impressed by Michael Nagy. Everything said and done, I would rate this performance just above average. It is quite respectable, but not my ideal interpretation of Bach's Christmas Oratorio.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

Relevant links:

Sebastian Kohlhepp
Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Regula Mühlemann
Michael Nagy
Anna Lucia Richter
Gaechinger Cantorey

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