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

[I] "Christmas Oratorio"
Julia Kleiter, soprano; Katharina Magiera, contralto; Georg Poplutz, tenor; Thomas E. Bauer, bass
Bachchor Mainz; Bachorchester Mainz
Dir: Ralf Otto
rec: Nov 28 - Dec 5, 2017, Mainz, Christuskirche
Naxos - 8.574001-02 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (2.25'20")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Victoria Braum soprano [Echo]
Andrea Ambros, Dorothea Gillert-Marien, Anja Kintscher, Meike Langer, Uta Lenz, Britta Mauritz-Dorschner, Martina Mück, Natalie Sahler, Susanne Schwenger, soprano; Martina Dix, Astrid Fuchs, Hanne Kielholtz, Melanie Leising, Meike Metzger, Petra Minn, Heidrun Noll, Valentina Pusinelli, Karin Specht, contralto; Nils Stefan, alto; Udo Ebbinghaus, Christoph Hellmann, Christopher Peter, Erik Reinhardt, Peter Schalk, Bernd Sucké, Sascha Tung, Florian Witte, tenor; Dirk Anglowski, Thomas Becker, Jacob Böttcher, Bernd Eisel, Elmar Middendorf, Henrik Schlitt, Jonas Seeger, Jochen Specht, Leon Tchakachow, Horst Zimmermann, bass
Guy Ferber, Krisztián Kováts, Jens Jourdan, trumpet; Stefan Blonk, Antonia Riezu González, horn; Leonard Schelb, Rei Nakashima, transverse flute; Susanne Kohnen, Shogo Fujii, oboe, oboe d'amore; Antonello Cola, Benjamin Völkel, oboe da caccia; Ursula Vogt, bassoon; Swantje Hoffmann, Hongxia Cui, Emanuele Breda, Marlene Crone, Nikolaus Norz, Alexandra Wiedner, Katerina Ozaki, Magdalena Adugna, Joosten Ellée, violin; Ludwig Hampe, Silke Volk, Yoko Tanaka, viola; Anna-Lena Perenthaler, Marie Deller, cello; Ichiro Noda, Kit Scotney, violone; Joachim Held, lute; Manuel Dahme, harpsichord; Torsten Mann, organ; Thomas Holzinger, timpani

[II] "Weihnachtsoratorium"
Gunta Smirnova, soprano; Flavio Ferri-Benedetti, alto; Hans Jörg Mammel, tenor; Raitis Grigalis, baritone
Musica Fiorita
Dir: Daniela Dolci
rec: Dec 2017, Basel, Adullam Kapelle
Pan Classics - PC 10393 (2 CDs) (© 2018) (2.22'05")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - no translations
Cover, track-list & booklet

Christine Cerletti, Jessica Jans, Sara Bino, soprano; Dina König, contralto; Tobias Knaus, alto; Daniel Issa, Roman Melish, Ivo Haun, tenor; Ismael Arroniz, Tiago Mota, bass
Henry Moderlak, Julian Zimmermann, trumpet; Jean-François Madeuf, trumpet, horn; Oliver Picon, horn; Eva Oertle, Liane Ehlich, transverse flute; Miriam Jorde, Olga Marulanda, oboe, oboe da caccia; Katharina Andres, Priska Comploi, oboe d'amore; Andrew Burn, bassoon; German Echeverri, Karoline Echeverri-Klemm, Katharina Heutjer, Cecilie Valter, violin; Lola Fernandez, Salome Janner, viola; Jonathan Pesek, cello; Marco Lo Cicero, violone; Juan Sebastian Lima, theorbo; Rafael Bonavita, theorbo, guitar; Joan Boronat Sanz, harpsichord, organ


It does not happen that often that a year passes by without the release of at least one new recording of Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio. One would think that it is hardly possible to offer new perspectives on this famous piece, which is also performed many times every year around the globe, in particular during the Christmas season. And indeed, if one compares the many recordings available, it is mostly the performances which are different. In comparison with, for instance, the St John Passion, there are no different versions to choose from.

The two recordings under review here were released last year, but came to late to be reviewed on time. However, considering the fact that both of them are above average as far as the quality of the performances is concerned, I would not like to ignore them, especially as this year seems to be a rare occasion that no new recording has been released.

For Naxos, Ralf Otto has recorded in recent years both of Bach's Passions. Therefore it can hardly come as a surprise that he turned to the Christmas Oratorio to continue his Bach recordings. The line-up is comparable to that in the Passions: a choir of a little over 30 singers, a ensemble of soloists who do not participate in the tutti, and an orchestra with period instruments which is probably smaller than one would expect on the basis of the size of the choir. Hermann Max, for instance, recorded the Christmas Oratorio with sixteen singers in the tutti and an orchestra of eight violins, two violas and two cellos. Otto's ensemble includes nine violins and three violas, but that is hardly a substantial difference. Fortunately, this does not result in the orchestra being overpowered by the choir. That is largely due to the transparency of the tutti episodes. It is clearly noticeable that the Bachchor Mainz is very experienced in baroque repertoire. The choral episodes are among this recording's assets. That said, in his attempt to emphasize some words or phrases - which as such is praiseworthy and stylistically correct - Otto sometimes tends to exaggerate; in such cases the articulation turns almost into a staccato, which is not nice to hear. In some cases the choruses are a bit too snappy. The chorales are well done, but often a little too slow.

In the recitatives, Otto apparently required his singers to emphasize the dramatic aspects. Again, that deserves praise, but here there is some exaggeration as well, for instance from Thomas Bauer in 'So recht, ihr Engel' (Cantata I). Although he uses a bit too much vibrato, overall he is quite convincing. 'Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen' (Cantata 5) is particularly nice. The same goes for Julia Kleiter; she makes the best impression in 'Flößt, mein Heiland' (Cantata 4). As far as I can remember, I had never heard Katharina Magiera. This was a most pleasant acquaintance. I like her voice, and her contributions are among the highlights of this performance. Georg Poplutz is an outstanding Evangelist, who performs this part in a truly declamatory manner, mostly in the right tempo. The orchestra is excellent, and the obbligato parts are very well performed.

I have already mentioned some of the main issues. A choir of more than 30 singers is much larger than any choir Bach had at his disposal, and it seems unlikely that such large choirs were ever used in his time. It is regrettable that Otto and other conductors in the world of historical performance practice, ignore what is known about the size of choirs in Bach's time. He is also inconsistent in the line-up in the recitatives in which the soprano sings a chorale. In 'Er ist auf Erden kommen arm' (Cantata 1), the chorale is sung by the sopranos from the choir, whereas in 'Immanuel, du süßes Wort' and 'Wohlan, dein Name soll allein' (Cantata 4), this part is sung by Julia Kleiter. As is common practice these days, the basso continuo group includes a plucked instrument, in this case a lute. I don't see any reason for that, and I doubt whether it has any historical foundation.

Overall, despite these points of criticism, I rank this recording among the better-than-average. It has many good things to offer, and I can imagine that this is a recording I will now and then return to.

In several respects Daniela Dolci's performance differs from Ralf Otto's. The most striking of these is the number of performers. In line with the practice in Bach's time, the Christmas Oratorio is performed here as a work for an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists, some of whom take care of the solo parts. The vocal ensemble comprises twelve singers: four 'soloists' and eight ripienists. The instrumental ensemble is also rather small: just four violins, two violas and one cello. This results in an ideal balance between the vocal and the instrumental forces. The instrumentalists are equal partners rather than accompanists. There is something special about the instrumental ensemble: Jean-François Madeuf and his colleagues play 'real' natural trumpets, without (unhistorical) fingerholes. Basically Daniela Dolci approaches the Christmas Oratorio as a piece of vocal chamber music.

Despite the smaller size of the ensemble, Dolci's tempi are not very different from Otto's. Overall, in Dolci's performance the tempi of the chorales are a bit faster, whereas the arias are a little slower. In the opening choruses the tempi are virtually the same, but Dolci manages to make the rhythmic pulse more palpable. Both Dolci and Otto set clear accents, but there is no trace of staccato in the former's performances. Again, I would have liked to hear the chorales at a slightly faster tempo, but otherwise they are excellently sung, with appropriate dynamic accents.

In her notes about the performance, Daniela Dolci writes: "As usual in the baroque period, our organist Joan Boronat Sanz improvised between the verses of the chorale. We have chosen chorale no. 12 as an example." I find this very questionable. There are indeed indications of this practice, but it seems that it was employed in the accompaniment of the congregation. The short improvisations allowed the faithful to catch their breath, as the tempo of congregational singing was rather slow. But the chorales in the Christmas Oratorio were not intended for congregational singing. Moreover, if one would like to 'restore' this assumed practice, it is rather odd to confine it to just one chorale (here 'Brich an, du schönes Morgenlicht' - Cantata 2). It may makes sense in a live performance, but not in a commercial recording.

Like in Ralf Otto's recording, a plucked instrument participates in the basso continuo. In this case a theorbo is used, and even a guitar. Whereas I doubt the historical justification for the use of any plucked instrument in this work, the inclusion of a guitar seems to me rather odd.

Dolci has four outstanding soloists at her disposal, although the contributions of Raitis Grigalis are not entirely unproblematic. His German pronunciation is not impeccable. Moreover, his voice lacks a bit of weight, and that affects the performance of 'Großer Herr, o starker König' (Cantata 1). It has a positive effect in the recitatives with a chorale, as he never overshadows the soprano. Gunta Smirnova delivers an excellent performance of 'Flößt mein Heiland'; the singer of the echo is not mentioned. I wonder if the echo should be placed so far in the background as is the case here. Flavio Ferri-Benedetti sings his arias with great intensity. He adds some embellishments, which is a matter of debate. Some scholars and interpreters believe that Bach has already written out all the ornaments himself and that there is no need to add any more. Dolci's recording is not entirely consistent here, because the other soloists are more restrained in this department. Hans Jörg Mammel is hard to beat in the part of the Evangelist; he communicates the text in a truly speach-like manner, at an appropriate pace and with the right amount of rhythmic freedom. He is also convincing in his arias.

Taking all aspects into account, this is one of the best performances of Bach's Christmas Oratorio on disc right now.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Flavio Ferri-Benedetti
Julia Kleiter
Katharina Magiera
Hans Jörg Mammel
Georg Poplutz
Gunta Smirnova
Bachchor Mainz
Musica Fiorita

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