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Johann Sebastian BACH
Christmas Oratorio, BWV248.
Sibylla Rubens (soprano); Ingeborg Danz (alto); James Taylor (tenor, Evangelist); Marcus Ullmann (tenor); Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass); Gächinger Kantorei; Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling.
Hännsler Edition Bachakademie CD92.076 [three discs] [DDD] [144'26]

According to the booklet, this recording began on Christmas Day, 1999. Far from giving the impression that the musicians have been dragged away from their roasts with attendant trimmings, however, Rilling inspires his forces to a compulsively alert rendering of the Christmas Oratorio.

This cycle of six cantatas (for Christmas Day, the next two days, Feast of the Circumcision, the Sunday after New Year and Feast of Epiphany) was written for the Christmas period of 1734-5. It has long been a Bachian favourite and so Rilling enters a full field, at the head of which lie Koopman (Erato 0620 14635-2), Suzuki (BIS 941/2) and Gardiner (Archiv 423 232-2). All boast fine soloists. Rilling eschews star names, giving the impression of a truly concerted effort, working together towards one vision. Whilst working on this review, I was fortunate enough to hear Gardiner's latest Bach Cantatas release (Nos. 94, 105 and 168 on Archiv 463 590-2). Rilling loses nothing in freshness and candour to Gardiner in his understanding of Bach.

From the very first bars there is a celebratory urgency to Rilling's account. Jauchzet, frohlocket positively bursts with vitality and shoes off the strengths of the recording quality: clean and with a true sense of perspective.

The soprano Sibylla Rubens is pure and fully equipped to negotiate the many florid passages. Ingeborg Danz is every semiquaver her equal: the extended aria Schlafe mein Liebster from the second Cantata shows off all her qualities. The light, high tenor of James Taylor suits the Evangelist well. To sample the bass Müller-Bachmann, try his duet in the third Cantata with the soprano (Herr, dein Mittleid, dein Erbarmen). This is the most extended movement of that Cantata, yet seems to last not a millisecond too long.

A word of praise must go to the obbligati contributions from the orchestra throughout the set. Perhaps the horns of the fourth Cantata deserve special mention for coping so stylishly with their cruelly high parts.

An excellent set. My copy credited the wrong cantatas to discs two and three, a potentially confusing situation Hänssler would do well to rectify if widespread. A minor ergonomic quibble: this is a set that will bring much pleasure and which deserves repeated listening.

Colin Clarke



and a second view from Peter Bates:

Along with the Magnificat and the St. Matthew Passion, Bach's Christmas Oratorio is one of his most popular choral works. Yet few listeners in the holiday season throng know that Bach created several of the oratorio sections from three previous secular cantatas, a practice known as "parody." Bach thought nothing wrong, for example, with using Cantata BWV 213 ("Hercules auf dem Scheidewege"), which celebrates the birthday of young Prince Friedrich Christian, for his Christmas Oratorio sections that celebrate the birthday of the redeemer. He was in favor of anything that conveyed the music emotively and dramatically.

No doubt he would approve of multiple interpretations of his work, believing, like Shostakovich did, that there are no right or wrong interpretations, only ineffectual ones.

Hänssler Edition's Christmas Oratorio has an authentic feel to it common to the original instrument adherents, although conductor Helmuth Rilling does not use original instruments. Yet his spirited lively rendition, evident from the glorious opening "Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf preiset die Tage," makes you realize why Hänssler chose Rilling for its complete Bach edition. Soprano Sibylla Rubens and bass Hanno-Muller-Brachtman sing the "Herr dein Mitleid" duet with impeccable timing and dazzlingly sharp intonation. Rilling's tempo picks up in arias like "Ich will nur dir zu Ehren Leben." In this aria, tenor Marcus Ullmann's melisma is organic to his snappy singing style . While this rendition is considerably faster than Titanic 5 569 72 7 (4:39 vs. 5:23), you may find it difficult to prefer one to the other because the aria is about strength, not speed. Rilling's "Flößt, mein Heiland" is also quite different from Wachner's. The echo sopranos are hauntingly distant. Sibylla Rubens' assertive voice makes you feel like you've time-traveled to 1735 Leipzig. Hers is an obsessively controlled voice, more sibilant than most other interpreters and with more pronounced rolling of the r's. Rilling's choral finale "Nur seid ihr wohl gerochen" is particularly brisk, with sharp differentiation between the two choruses. Perhaps it is a little too brisk, as if everybody's in a hurry to get home after church services. In this respect, Titanic's finale, more than a minute longer, allows more time to digest the machinations of Bach's counterpoint.

Peter Bates

Reviews from previous months

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