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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248), Cantatas 1 - 3

Musicalische Compagney
Dir: Holger Eichhorn

rec: Sept 18 - 20, 2012, Berlin-Moabit, St. Johannis-Kirche
Querstand - VKJK 1238 (© 2012) (75'49")
Liner-notes: E/D; lyrics - translation: E
Cover & track-list

Leopold Lampelsdorfer, soprano; Thomas Riede, alto; Jan Hübner, tenor; Georg Lutz, bass; Helen Barsby, David Rodeschini, Christoffer Wolf, trumpet; Johanna Bartz, Eva Frick, transverse flute; Georg Corall, Renate Hildebrand, oboe, oboe d'amore; Eva Grießhaber, tenor oboe, oboe da caccia; Nikolaus M. Broda, oboe da caccia, bassoon; Irina Kisselova, Almut Schlicker, Dagmar Valentova, Christine Trinks, violin; Daniela Braun, viola; Georg Kroneis, cello; Waltraud Gumz, violone; Torsten Übelhör, organ; Tan Kutay, timpani

When Bach's Christmas Oratorio is performed live, it is mostly four of the six cantatas which are performed. However, when this work is recorded on disc we usually get it complete. The present recording by the Musicalische Compagney includes only the first three cantatas, and that is deliberate. In the booklet Holger Eichhorn discusses at length the features of this performance. He believes, on the basis of musical and textual considerations, that the first three cantatas are a unity and can be considered the 'real' Christmas Oratorio. In various ways the other cantatas don't fit into the scope of the first three.

In several aspects this recording is clearly different from what is on the market. As the reader probably knows, the American musicologist Joshua Rifkin argues that Bach mostly performed his sacred music with one voice per part, sometimes with additional singers for the tutti, so-called ripienists. Some performers have embraced that view, for instance Paul McCreesh and Sigiswald Kuijken. Various recordings which follow Rifkin's views are on the market, such as a cantata cycle by Kuijken and recordings of the Passions and the Mass in B minor by Kuijken, McCreesh, Minkowski and the ensemble Cantus Cölln. However, to date no recordings of the Christmas Oratorio with one voice per part are available. That makes this performance even more interesting.

One may ask whether a scoring with just four singers can do justice to the festive and often jubilant character of the Christmas Oratorio. That especially concerns the prominent role of wind instruments, including three trumpets. This recording proves that this is certainly possible, but one has to adapt his expectations. Those who want to hear arias sung by a soloist who is accompanied by instruments, will probably be disappointed. The soloists are less prominent here than in performances with a team of soloists, a choir and an orchestra. Eichhorn sees the Christmas Oratorio as rooted in the tradition of the German sacred concerto of the 17th century. The sacred concerto was not a piece for one or more solo voices with instrumental accompaniment, but rather an ensemble piece, a work in a number of parts, some of which are performed vocally and others instrumentally. That is very much the case here too. The opening chorus of the first cantata, Jauchzet, frohlocket, is very much an ensemble piece in which voices and instruments have equal weight.

This performance is based on the thought that singers and players are one ensemble. Eichhorn compares it to North-German organs which are based on the consort principle: the various instruments of one family - strings, reed instruments, brass - are comparable to the different 'choirs' of the organ. In this regard the reed instruments, and especially the oboes, deserve special mention. One of the oboists, Georg Corall, director of les hautboïstes de prusse which participate in this recording, explains the character and role of the oboes in this interpretation. From the end of the 17th century ensembles of oboe players were active in Germany, often referred to as Hautboïsten. Their line-up varied: they could comprise three oboes and one bassoon or two oboes, one taille de hautboïs (tenor oboe) and bassoon. Since the early 18th century horns and trumpets could be included. Such ensembles often played an independent role. An example is the second cantata of the Christmas Oratorio which is scored for two transverse flutes, two oboes, two oboi da caccia, strings and bc. The oboe ensemble is presented as "a cohesive entity", as Corall states. That comes especially to the fore in the sinfonia. "Inspired by this concept we decided to also use a complete double-reed quartet, consisting of two oboes, i>Taille de hautboïs and a bassoon, for the choruses and chorales in the first and third cantatas".

The scoring in this performance "creates a sound balance that allows the advantage of a chamber music performance. Hence particular attention was given to the text to achieve the greatest eloquence possible. The instruments aimed to 'speak' the text and articulate as clearly as the singers". This is also due to the reeds which are used and which are copies of historical examples. They permit "the clearest differentiation in the executions of vowels and consonants. (...) Through the intensive eloquence of each instrument the text is reinforced instead of 'drowning' the singers."

The last remark of Corall explains that the text can be communicated with only four singers. In my reviews I often complain that the text is hard to understand. That has everything to do with things like articulation and differentiation in diction and pronunciation, not just of the singers but also of the players. The latter have to 'speak', just like the singers. That is the case here, and that is one of the crucial features of this performance. Not only is the diction of the singers very good, all participants clearly differentiate between 'good' and 'bad' notes which makes the music really breathe and is in line with the rhetorical character of baroque music. There are also pronounced accents in long sequences of notes, for instance on "labet" in the aria Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet. The recitatives are performed with the necessary freedom in regard to the rhythm; it is the text which is decisive rather than the bars. The rhythmic pulse is very important in baroque music. Much attention has been given to this aspect here; the sinfonia which opens the second cantata is a good example as it is played here in a beautifully swaying rhythm. In vocal pieces the rhythmic pulse underlines the natural accents and in this way serves the audibility of the text.

A special feature of this performance is the fact that the soprano part is sung by a treble, a member of the Tölzer Knabenchor. There need to be no fear that he can't stand his ground; the members of this choir are trained as soloists and he has no problem to make his part audible in the choruses. The soloists don't have big voices, but that would be out of place here. They perfectly fit into the concept and deliver fine performances of the arias and recitatives. Jan Hübner deserves special praise for his account of the part of the Evangelist. Sometimes I felt that the performance is a little too restrained. I certainly could imagine, for instance, a more pronounced playing from the violins.

Even when a performance is very good there is alsmost always something left to be desired. Recently there has been a tendency to use large organs for the basso continuo in German sacred music. Unfortunately Eichhorn has not followed that practice. And as he is obviously very concerned about performance practice in Bach's time it would have been nice if he had decided to ask for the participation of trumpeters who are specialised in the playing of trumpets without unauthentic finger holes. That is risky, but worth the effort.

In this review I have tried to give a fair characterisation of this recording. The concept is intriguing and stimulating and historically highly interesting. The performance is good and musically satisfying; in fact, what I have heard here is in many ways what I have always hoped to hear in German baroque music. It is to be hoped that it will attract the attention it deserves and will offer new perspectives for the interpretation of the oeuvre of Bach.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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