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

[I] "Christmas Oratorio"
Dunedin Consort
Dir: John Butt
rec: Sept 7 - 12, 2015, Edinburgh, Greyfriars Kirk
Linn Records - CKD 499 (2 CDs) (© 2016) (2.22'00")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations: E
[N.B. The booklet which is available at the site of Linn Records includes liner-notes in German and Spanish)
Cover, track-list & booklet

Mary Bevanacf, Joanne Lunnbde, soprano; Ciara Hendrickbde, Clare Wilkinsonacf, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Hobbsbde, Nicholas Mulroyacf, tenor; Matthew Brookacf, Konstantin Wolffbde, bass
[ripienists] Rachel Redmond, sopranoacf (Echod); Karie Schofield, contraltoacf; Malcolm Bennett, tenoracf; Alex Jones, bassacf
Katy Bircher, Graham O'Sullivan, transverse flute; Alex Bellamy, Frances Norbury, oboe; Oonagh Lee, Karen Gibbard, oboe d'amore; Peter Whelan, bassoon; Anneke Scott, Joe Walters, horn; Paul Sharp, Simon Munday, Matthew Wells, trumpet; Cecilia Bernardini, Sarah Bevan, Huw Daniel, Tuomo Suni, violin; Alfonso Leal del Ojo, viola; Jonathan Manson, cello; Bill Hunt, violone; Stephen Farr, organ; Alan Emslie, timpani

[II] "Weihnachtsoratorium BWV 248"
La Petite Bande
Dir: Sigiswald Kuijken
rec: Dec 11 & 13 - 17, 2013, Louvain, Predikherenkerk
Challenge Classics - CC72394 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (2.19'25")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - no translations
Cover & track-list

Sunhae Im, soprano; Petra Noskaiová, contralto; Stephan Scherpe, tenor; Jan Van der Crabben, bass
Anne Pustlauk, Sien Huybrechts, transverse flute; Ofer Frenkel, Mathieu Loux, oboe, oboe d'amore; Vinciane Baudhuin, Katarzyna Sokolowska, oboe, oboe d'amore, oboe da caccia; Rainer Johannsen, bassoon; Jean-François Madeuf, Pierre-Yves Madeuf, horn, trumpet; Graham Nicholson, trumpet; Sigiswald Kuijken, Jin Kim, Sara Kuijken, Barbara Konrad, violin; Marleen Thiers, viola; Makoto Akatsu, violoncello da spalla; Ronan Kernoa, basse de violon; Benjamin Alard, organ; Koen Plaetinck, timpani

[I] Jauchzet, frohlocket! Auf, preiset die Tagea; [II] Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegendb; [III] Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallenc; [IV] Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Lobend; [V] Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungene; [VI] Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnaubenf


One of the main items in the debate about the performance of Bach's oeuvre is the size of the vocal forces to be used in his sacred works. Some scholars are convinced that Bach usually performed them with solo voices. The first large-scale work which was the subject of this approach was the Mass in b minor which Joshua Rifkin recorded back in the 1980s. It was followed by several recordings of cantatas but this performance practice was largely seen as an interesting alternative. It was probably since the early years of this century that this approach found more followers, undoubtedly partly thanks to the influential book by Andrew Parrott, The Essential Bach Choir, published in the Bach year 2000.

It seems that the Christmas Oratorio was the last large-scale piece which was performed and recorded with one voice per part. Considering that it is a highly popular work which is performed every year at Christmastide all over the world one wonders why that is the case. It is probably the instrumental scoring, including horns, trumpets and timpani, which may make performers sceptical whether this approach is going to work. Is it possible to create a good balance between only four voices and the brass? The answer is yes and no. It isn't if one wants the solo voices to act like that: singers who come forward and sing their parts to the accompaniment of an orchestra. But that is not how this kind of music was intended in Bach's time. Only in opera the soloists played a real solo role; in sacred music they were part of an ensemble of vocal and instrumental forces. Bach's cantatas and oratorios are ensemble music and in that respect they are not fundamentally different from the sacred music which was composed in the previous century by the likes of Heinrich Schütz. In Bach's time there were specialists on their instruments, such as the trumpeter Gottfried Reiche, but it was common practice that instrumentalists sometimes also acted as singers in Bach's 'choir' and vice versa. If one wants to really appreciate and honestly assess a performance with one voice per part one has to keep this in mind.

Some years ago I reviewed a recording of the first three cantatas, directed by Holger Eichhorn. In that recording the soloists have a less prominent role and are more part of the ensemble. Having listened to the two recordings which are the subject of this review the one under the direction of Sigiswald Kuijken comes most close to Eichhorn's interpretation. In the opening chorus of the first cantata, for instance, the four singers have to deal with the prominent parts of the three trumpets and the timpani. I can imagine that some Bach lovers would like them to be more clearly audible. Obviously the audibility of the text needs the greatest possible attention, because especially that aspect is likely to suffer. That is not entirely avoided here like in other tutti sections with trumpets. It also requires more attention from the listener. It will probably be less of a problem here because most listeners will know the text, but in other pieces, such as the cantata Christen, ätzet diesen Tag (BWV 63) which John Butt included in his recording of music for Christmas Day in Leipzig in 1723, that may be more problematic. This problem is not entirely solved by Kuijken's recording.

Was a lack of balance the reason John Butt made use of ripienists in the cantatas with trumpets and timpani (1, 3 and 6)? He doesn't specifically use the instrumental scoring as an argument, but it can hardly be coincidental. He shares the view of Bach's music being intended for solo voices, but here he has adopted a more pragmatic approach, even though he doesn't specifically calls it that way. In his notes on performance practice he states that there are no indications that the vocal parts were doubled. Butt takes into consideration the heavy work-load of the singers and instrumentalists in the time between Christmas Day, for which the first cantata is intended, and Epiphany, the day the last cantata was performed. "Christmastide seems to be the time of year when Bach often did add ripienists to the texture (see, for instance, Cantatas 63 and 110). The adding of ripieno parts to sections of the Christmas Oratorio would therefore certainly not have sounded inappropriate in Bach’s Leipzig, even if there is no evidence for it in the parts. The solution I devised for this recording, then, is one that is based on a range of historical possibilities; it is intended to provide both consistency and variety, but without necessarily corresponding directly with what Bach actually did."

I have no fundamental objection to a larger-scale line-up in Bach's vocal works. It seems to me that the view that Bach's sacred music was usually performed with one voice per part has still the status of theory; the research on this matter is a work in progress. In science a theory can be refuted by searching for facts which contradict it. I don't know if such research takes place, but that is really necessary. If such attempts fail, then the theory becomes considerably more plausible. But I find the reasons Butt uses for adding ripienists not very convincing as it is basically founded on guesswork. I prefer interpreters to apply a certain approach with consistency.

The line-up is basically the only thing in which Butt's recording is different from what is on the market. Kuijken takes a couple of more steps away from what has become tradition in the circle of historical performance practice. One of these is the use of a violoncello da spalla - played in a position against the right shoulder - instead of the traditional cello. The basic string instrument for the lower register is the basse de violon. Overall the effect of this is probably limited in a work like this. The use of real natural trumpets has a much more noticeable effect. Jean-François and Pierre-Yves Madeuf as well as Graham Nicholson - who also builds natural trumpets - are specialists in playing the trumpet without finger holes which today are often added to natural trumpets to improve intonation. This seems to me one of the most exciting developments in the field of performance practice.

That leaves one issue which is probably the hardest to solve: the use of the organ in the basso continuo. Bach obviously used the large organ of the Thomaskirche. Recently performers have tried to restore this practice as an alternative to the common use of positive organs. The main problem is finding an organ with the right disposition, pitch and temperament as well as enough space at the organ loft to position all the participants. That is not easy and in most performances of the Christmas Oratorio in churches and modern concert halls this is completely impossible. That said, it is worth the attempt to come even closer to the performance practice in Bach's time. In an ideal world the upper part would be taken by a treble rather than a female soprano. Holger Eichhorn, in the recording I mentioned above, has shown that this is perfectly possible.

Let us turn to the performances. The tempi show significant differences. One wouldn't guess if one looks at the overall timing of these two recordings. But a more detailed observance of the timings of individual movements reveals that there are some meaningful differences between these two recordings. In the arias Butt is mostly a little faster than Kuijken. Most opening choruses are a little faster in Kuijken's recording, with the exception of Cantata No. 5 where Butt is the fastest. In two categories Kuijken is considerably faster, and rightly so. First the secco recitatives, sung by the tenor in his capacity as Evangelist. Stephan Scherpe is a true story teller: he takes the necessary liberties in his treatment of the rhythm in the interest of a communication of the text. His speech-like interpretation is in strong contrast to the singing of Nicholas Mulroy and Thomas Hobbs; their interpretations lack the contrasts in tempo and rhythm of Scherpe's performance and are generally too slow. This is a serious shortcoming of Butt's recording. The same goes for his treatment of the chorales. There is little text expression and the tempi are slowish, with too few dynamic accents. How different is the performance of the chorales in Kuijken's recording which is much more in the tradition of Gustav Leonhardt as we know it, for instance, from his recording of the St Matthew Passion. The tempi are more natural; the text is given full attention and is always depicted in the way it is treated by the vocal quartet.

Kuijken has brought together four singers whose voices blend pretty well. Only in some of the choruses a slight vibrato in Sunhae Im's voice is notable but it does them little harm. That is different in Butt's recording. Here the choruses are more seriously damaged by the vibrato of some of the singers. In the Cantatas 1, 3 and 6 it comes especially from Mary Bevan and probably also some of the ripienists and in Cantatas 2, 4 and 5 from Ciara Hendricks and Kristian Wolff. These are also the weak spots in the performances of the arias. That doesn't mean that Kuijken is always ahead in this department. A problem I also noted in some of his cantata recordings is that some of his singers lack personality and are a bit bland. In this performance that goes in particular for Petra Noskaiová. She sings well but is a little colourless; the alto arias in the Christmas Oratorio are among the most beautiful in Bach's oeuvre but here they haven't really moved me. In the tutti sections the alto part is also a bit underexposed. In comparison Clare Wilkinson is really touching in her arias. I was sceptical at first when I saw that Sunhae Im was taking the soprano part in Kuijken's recording. I have heard her in opera and other secular music, especially of a later period, and in that kind of repertoire I like her a lot. I didn't associate her with Bach's sacred music, but she makes a very good impression here: she admirably adapts her voice to her collegues and makes the most of her solos. I have my problems with Jan Van der Crabben. His German pronunciation is correct but somehow it doesn't sound really idiomatic. I also find his guttural "r" not very nice. His performances are solid but not more than that. However, Butt doesn't do really better in this respect. Matthew Brooks and Konstantin Wolff are fine singers but I don't really appreciate any of them. Both use too much vibrato; Wolff is a bit bland and Brook not always very subtle. However, I realise that this is partly a matter of taste.

The instrumental line-up is largely the same, as far as the number of performers is concerned. In both recordings the playing is of the highest level. Especially the players of the brass deserve praise for their efforts. Even with finger holes the natural trumpets are hard to play but both teams of players deliver impressive performamces of these parts.

Let me point out some details in both performances, starting with Butt.

The vibrato in the choruses I already noted comes clearly to the fore in the opening chorus of Cantata No. 1. Here the trumpets are impressive and the timpani make themselves clearly heard. The alto aria 'Bereite dich Zion' is one of the highlights of this recording as it receives a moving performance from Clare Wilkinson. The recitative with chorale 'Er ist auf Erden kommen arm' is spoilt by Mary Bevan's vibrato. Matthew Brook does well in 'Grosser Herr, du starker König' but why is his last line changed into an ascending figure, ending an octave above what is written down?

Cantata No. 2 opens with the sinfonia which is played here in a beautiful swaying rhythm. Joanne Lunn is excellent as the Angel in 'Fürchtet euch nicht'. In 'Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet' Thomas Hobbs demonstrates the agility of his voice; despite the fast tempo the articulation is good and the text is clearly understandable. 'Schlafe, mein Liebster' starts well: Ciara Hendrick shows great breath control in the demanding opening phrase but soon it goes wrong when a pretty strong vibrato creeps in. It results in a performance which is overall rather disappointing. In the chorus 'Ehre sei Gott' the voices again don't fully blend.

In the chorus 'Herrscher des Himmels' which opens Cantata 3 the dynamic accents in the instrumental introduction are a bit weak. In the recitative 'Er hat sein Volk getröst' Matthew Brook sings "die Hülf auf Zion hergesendet" instead of aus; that is exactly the opposite. This error which must be a slip of the tongue should have been corrected. His voice doesn't blend that well with Mary's Bevan's in the duet 'Herr, dein Mitleid'. Clare Wilkinson is once again excellent in 'Schließe, mein Herze'; its intimacy is perfectly conveyed.

The opening chorus of Cantata No. 4, 'Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben', is a bit disappointing: the tempo is a little to slow and it lacks dynamic accents. There is some very fine horn playing here. 'Flößt mein Heiland' is another highlight of this recording, with Joanne Lunn delivering a brilliant performance, well articulated and expressive. In 'Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben' Hobbs' articulation is pretty good but the fast tempo doesn't allow for much dynamic differentiation and as a result it is a bit superficial.

In Cantata No. 5 the aria 'Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen' makes little impression; I don't find Wolff's voice very attractive and his incessant vibrato doesn't make things any better. The trio 'Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen' is rather unbalanced, due to the differences between the voices. In the last cantata the aria 'Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen' comes close to the 'rage aria' in 18th-century operas; this performance is too harmless, partly due to the tempo which is too slow but also the lack of dynamic accents and the playing of the orchestra which lacks profile. Thomas Hobbs delivers a fine and expressive performance of 'Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schrecken'.

Turning to Kuijken, the opening chorus of the first cantata is a bit disappointing. The dynamic accents are understated and the sound of the timpani is a bit muffled. It is one of the choruses where Sunhae Im's slight vibrato is noticeable. 'Bereite sich Zion' doesn't make much impression; Noskaiová is just too bland. Van der Crabben doesn't make much impression in 'Großer Herr' either, but Jean-François Madeuf's trumpet playing is excellent.

In Cantata No. 2 'Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet' lack dynamic accents. In 'Schlafe, mein Liebster' the diction of Noskaiová is not perfect and the text is not very well understandable. In the chorus 'Ehre sei Gott' the upper voice is a shade too dominant. Here the accents are too heavy; it should have been treated more like a dance, in line with the pastoral character of this cantata. The closing chorale would have come off better in a faster tempo.

In Cantata No. 3 the duet 'Herr, dein Mitleid' is given a fine performance; the voices of Sunhae Im and Jan Van der Crabben blend really well. Here the aria 'Flößt mein Heiland' in Cantata No. 4 is also one of the highlights: Sunhae Im is really outstanding. The booklet doesn't indicate who sings the echo; is it Petra Noskaiová? In both recordings the echo is in the background. This is common practice, but I have my doubts whether this is justified from a historical angle. I wonder whether Bach really allocated that voice on another loft. Maybe the two voices should be much closer to each other. 'Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben' is beautifully sung by Stephan Scherpe; the tempo is a bit more moderate than in Butt's recording and that has a positive effect.

Cantata No. 5 opens with a sparkling performance of the chorus 'Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen'. The trio 'Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen' comes off better here than in Butt's recording, because the voices blend better. But Petra Noskaiová has too little presence. In Cantata No. 6 the aria 'Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen' is done well. The tempo is a little faster than in Butt's performance, but it is still to slow and the aria is too harmless here as well. Sunhae Im sings it beautifully, though. The same goes for Stephan Scherpe in 'Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schrecken'. The tempo is again slower than in Butt's recording but is satisfying, allowing for a good articulation and a satisfying dynamic shading.

On balance there is no clear favourite. Both performances have strenghts and weaknesses which I have tried to sum up here. Kuijken is the more consistent in his approach; the use of real natural trumpets is an important asset, considering their prominent role in this work. It is a shame that some of his singers are a bit bland, but at least they don't spoil the party with an incessant vibrato. A major factor is the performance of the part of the Evangelist. All said and done, if I had to choose one of these recordings, this aspect probably would make me to go for Kuijken.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Dunedin Consort
La Petite Bande

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