as christmas is nearing, it is time for some cultural tips again. and what is better for the festive season than some JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH? i absolutely adore his WEIHNACHTSORATORIUM (christmas oratorio) and between first advent and christmas i listen to it daily (yes, you can call me a freak…).
now as there are many versions around, i thought i would give an idea of my personal favourites. they might not be to everyone’s taste but they are all worth a listen. i have to state two things first (not to disappoint anyone):
- i like bach light, lithe and with flowing rhythms, sentiment does not come through leaden tempi (this rules out the recordings under kurt thomas and the thomanerchor – even though it has fabulous soloists! – as well as the recording under karl richter with the overblown sound of the bachchor münchen – also, what a line up of soloist: wunderlich, janowitz, ludwig…)
- for the alto part i very much prefer a woman’s voice (this rules out the otherwise fabulous version under rene jacobs, even though andreas scholl sings magnificently, for the christmas oratorio i favour a female alot, as it gives the music more gravitas and warmth)
so, my preferred versions and listening guide for the wonderous world of the WEIHNACHTSORATORIUM are:
nikolaus harnoncourt with the concentus musicus wien and the arnold schoenberg chor:
this version is neither fast nor slow, but the rhythms are well sprung and it dances along. to my ears it just sounds right from beginning to end. The choir is very pointed in articulation and the way Harnoncourt highlights the drumming and the trumpets in the opening chorus is joyous and festive at the same time. there is real ‘jauchzen’ in the music making. the soloists are a sound lot, from werner güra’s mellifluous evengelist to christine schäfer’s vibrant and husky soprano and bernarda fink’s deeply felt alto. one highlight is gerald finley’s spectacular ‘ großer herr und starker könig’, but the highlights are many! for me this version is perfect from beginning to end 🙂
riccardo chailly with the gewandhausorchester and the dresdener kammerchor:
many critis considered it too fast when released but there is so much joy in the music making! it sure starts racy but then the opening chorus is one of rejoycing and it makes sense. having bach performed where he wrote most of his music does make it special. the soloists are a sound lot as well, young, commited and slender voiced, with carolyn sampson shining especially. it is a very refreshing version!
sigiswald kuijken with la petite bande:
the novum in this recording is that it does not use a choir, the choruses and chorales are sung by the four soloists who make up a ‘one-voice-a-part-choir’. the result is a very intimate version (that also uses a small orchestra) that is gentle as well as genteel. there is a clarity in the singing that makes the music sound felt and lived. not a hint of overblown proceedings here. a true version for conaisseurs.
hermann max with das kleine konzert and the rheinische kantorei:
a period-style instruments version again (as are the harnoncourt and kuijken!) that sounds slender but festive. choir and soloists are all native speakers and use the language as if spoken. it might not boost any individual stand-out but the sum of the parts is much more: it has a swinging character to its proceedings which is not as quick as chailly and less accentuated as harnoncourt but makes you smile all along!
enoch zu guttenberg with the orchester der klangverwaltung and the chorgemeinschaft neubeuern:
guttenberg really creates something special with his chorgemeinschaft neubeuern – they are with him all the way and the accentuation of the music is quite special (which also means it is not to everyone’s liking … but very much to mine). they seem to live the joy of the words, bring out the hushed character of the chorales when required. it just feels as if they create each syllable they sing at the very moment it comes out of their mouth which is completely spellbinding. a good group of soloists completes the picture. a must-listen!
jan willem de vriend with the capella amsterdam and thecombattimento consort amsterdam:
a very colourful version on period instruments which dances along as well. there is no want in gravitas and the singing is a breath of fresh air. if you like your bach lithe and playful with a no-nonsense approach then this is a wonderful starting point. it also comes in the shape of a book and the booklet has lots of background information on the work itself. makes a great present … and is a great joy listening to as well.
as i get easily carried away, i better stop here … 6 recommendations are enough as otherwise one will feel between a rock and a hard place and not knowing what to choose. although there are two more honourable mentions, which is the version under john eliot gardiner (https://www.jpc.de/jpcng/classic/detail/-/art/Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Weihnachtsoratorium-BWV-248/hnum/2522691), which was for a long time leading the field in HIP versions but feels a bit too clean nowadays, even though the choir is beyond reproach and the soloists (especially anne sofie von otter) are sound – and the version under ralf otto (https://www.jpc.de/jpcng/classic/detail/-/art/Johann-Sebastian-Bach-1685-1750-Weihnachtsoratorium-BWV-248/hnum/2643773), which is a bit too middle-of-the-road in order to be a first recommendation, well sung as it is though (with ruth ziesak as a radiant soprano and christoph pregardien as a star of an evangelist) … it comes at budget price and is worth having. actually, all of the above are worth having as they all offer something different! 🙂
ask santa, he might bring you a version for christmas!