Festliche Weihnachten mit dem Thomanerchor Leipzig
(Christmas Celebrations with St Thomas’s Choir, Leipzig) 
Weihnachtssingen der Thomaner (Christmas with St Thomas’s boy choristers)
Michael PRÆTORIUS (1571-1621)
Weihnachtliche Chormusik [51:05]
Meine Seel erhebt den Herren (à 6) (German Magnificat) [20:11]
Enatus est Emanuel [1:33]
Joseph, lieber Joseph mein (à 3) [3:32]
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern [10:19]
Den die Hirten lobeten sehre/Quem pastores laudavere [3:50]
In dulci jubilo [2:25]
Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her [9:51]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio), BWV248: excerpts (arias and choruses) [71:46]
Thomanerchor Leipzig
rec. 1962-1981
No notes or texts.
Track listing and other performers at end of review
BERLIN CLASSICS BASICS 0300488BC [3 CDs: 49:23 + 51:05 + 71:46]
This 3-CD set is due for release on 10 December 2012 but it can be pre-ordered for around £13 and the individual discs are available separately at mid- or budget price, as indicated in the review. Subscribers to Naxos Music Library can sample them there.
2012 marks the 800th anniversary of the founding of St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig, so it’s not surprising that the record companies have been marking the event. One of the most interesting releases to have come my way recently contains the music of Bach’s predecessors as Kantor; this Berlin Classics Christmas release is less enterprising than that but it’s also timely in more senses than one.
The first disc is the shortest and for me the least interesting, with the boy choristers offering a selection mostly of Christmas standards - standards for a German-speaking audience, that is; less so for others. From the opening work by Hammerschmidt, Machet die Tore weit, to the (inevitable) Gruber Stille Nacht at the end, the standard of the singing is high, even by comparison with the fine recent recording of seasonal music by Hammerschmidt on Carus (83.375 - review and 21012/20 Download News). There are some novelties here, too, for even a reviewer sated on Christmas music to enjoy - I don’t recall hearing Gustav Brand’s König der Könige (track 4), for example. This CD has been available separately for some time at mid price on 0021182BC with a more attractive cover than this 3-CD set.
CD 2 is also available separately at mid price on Berlin Classics 0091282BC. It’s almost impossible not to enjoy the music of Prætorius, especially that associated with Christmas, but I have to say that Erhard Mauersberger, for all his reputation as a Bach conductor, didn’t hit the centre of the target for me. Tempi are generally slow - not necessarily always a bad thing, as in the case of Kurt Thomas’s Bach on CD3 - but they really do drag painfully at times.
The Magnificat is a song of praise but you wouldn’t necessarily think so from this performance. On track 7 the choir sing Er übet Gewalt mit seinem Arm - he hath showed strength with his arm - so a degree of power is in order, but this is very deliberate muscle-flexing indeed, funereal rather than powerful.
Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her - the angels’ glad tidings - takes 9:51 here (these are very stately angels) as against 8:55 on a selection of Prætorius’s Christmas music sung by Viva Voce on BIS-CD-1035. It’s not a just a matter of tempo; everything about that BIS recording is fresher, with a smaller consort of voices and minimal instrumental accompaniment. If only they had recorded the whole 6-part German Magnificat instead of an 8-minute fragment, Viva Voce would have been an ideal recommendation. As it is, the enthusiasm which I exhibited for this recording in my December 2011/1 Download Roundup must be slightly, but only slightly modified. Of CD2 of the Berlin Classics set I can only say that what seemed potentially the most interesting disc is for me the comparative failure.
As well as the BIS recording, recommendable recordings of Advent and Christmas music by Prætorius are to be found on:
- CPO 777327-2 [67:27]: Bremen Barock/Manfred Cordes - review and Christmas 2009 Download Roundup
- Hyperion CDH55446 [48:26]: Westminster Cathedral Choir; The Parley of Instruments/David Hill - review and November 2011/2 Download Roundup. Short playing time but at budget price.
- Mass for Christmas Morning: DG Archiv 439 2502 [79:00]: Gabrieli Consort and Players/Paul McCreesh - review - available only from Arkiv Music or as a download.
CD 3, a selection of arias and choruses from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, is available separately at budget price on 0185802BC and the whole work is on Berlin Classics 0021912BC (3 CDs, budget price). To many it will seem that this recording belongs to a past performance style best forgotten and they won’t even consider it but, as I wrote in my Download Roundup in December 2010 of another Bach recording from the same vintage with Kurt Thomas directing many of the same soloists, the Thomanerchor and Gewandhaus Orchestra in Wachet auf, BWV140, and two other cantatas, though his style involves slower tempi than we are now accustomed to, performances directed by Thomas and, from the same period, Karl Richter are still well worth hearing. When Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau joins the line-up, as he did for both conductors, though his contribution here is fairly minimal, there’s even more incentive to listen.
Thomas certainly can move things along at times: for Herrscher des Himmels from Part III (track 12) he takes 2:10, only a few seconds slower than John Eliot Gardiner on DG Archiv, Ton Koopman (Warner/Erato) or Philip Ledger (EMI Gemini) and, also contrary to the expectations that many will have, Richter, who was my own vade mecum to the Christmas Oratorio, is only a few seconds shorter again. (Still available on DG Archiv 427 2362, 3 CDs for around £14).
There are some longueurs by comparison with more recent recordings, but what you lose in terms of momentum is gained in extra grandeur. That’s true, for example, of the opening chorus of Part I, Jauchzet, frohlocket - at 8:51 that’s around a minute slower than is customary now, but it does make the music sound ceremonial without being pompous. It’s ups and downs, then, as John Quinn reported of a 10-CD set of Bach’s music conducted by Kurt Thomas on another Berlin Classics release - review - but, like him, I recommend that you investigate.
The new, greatly diminished version of the Penguin Guide doesn’t even give the Christmas Oratorio a look in but it’s a glorious work and every Bach lover ought to have a recording. This single-CD selection, just under half the complete work - Thomas’s complete recording runs to 169:30 - will serve as an introduction but you really need the whole Oratorio. If you don’t already have John Eliot Gardiner’s recordings of the two Passions and the b-minor Mass, there’s a wonderful bargain box of all these major works including the Christmas Oratorio from DG Archiv, 9 CDs for around £22 (469 7692). You’ll pay almost that much for the Christmas Oratorio alone, so even if you are lacking only Gardiner’s recording of one of the works it’s worth buying the box.
There’s an even bigger bargain in the form of a 7-CD box containing Gardiner’s Christmas Oratorio plus Christopher Hogwood’s Messiah, Valery Gergiev’s Nutcracker with a bonus CD of Christmas music from Regensburg and King’s, Cambridge. (The Complete Christmas Collection 477 9088, around £17).
The recordings are generally good, making a little allowance for the age of CD 3. I’m not sure whether the heavy sound on CD2 is mainly to be attributed to Mauersberger’s use of large forces or to the recording; probably a little of both. There are no notes with these discs but the recording dates are given loosely as 1962-1981. The Bach clearly comes from the earliest of those years - some sources suggest even earlier, 1958 - Erhard Mauersberger, who succeeded Kurt Thomas as Kantor, retired in 1972 and died in 1982.
So that’s two discs out of three well worth considering and one comparative failure. Two of the three CDs also offer short value, but the whole thing is on sale for around the price of one premium-price CD. So … you pays your money and you takes your choice.
Brian Wilson 
Two discs worth considering and one comparative failure at an attractive price.
Track & performance details:
CD 1
Gelaut der Thomaskirche zu Leipzig (sound of the bells) [1:07]
Andreas HAMMERSCHMIDT Machet die Tore weit [1:51]
Johannes ECCARD Übers Gebirg Maria geht [3:22]
Gustav BRAND König der Könige [2:33]
Max REGER 8 Geistliche Gesänge, Op. 138: No. 4. Unser lieben Frauen Tränen [2:00]
30 Little Chorale Preludes, Op. 135a: No. 16. Macht hoch die Tür [0:59]
Willy SENDT Aus hartem Weh, Op. 7a [1:45]
Traditional O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf [2:35]
Johannes WEYRAUCH Maria durch ein’ Dornwald ging [2:07]
Wilhelm WEISMANN Frohe Botschaft [2:28]
Michael PRÆTORIUS Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen [3:10]
Johannes ECCARD O Freude über Freud [3:00]; In dulci jubilo [2:17]
Leonhard SCHRÖTER Freut euch, ihr lieben Christen [1:35]
Traditional Joseph, lieber Joseph mein [2:27]
Johannes WEYRAUCH 7 Partita/6. Singet frisch und wohlgemut [2:13]
Traditional Still, still, still [1:25]; Freu dich, Erd und Sternenzelt [1:28]
Anonymous Kommet, ihr Hirten [1:42]; Lasst alle Gott uns loben [2:36]
Max REGER 30 Little Chorale Preludes, Op. 135a: No. 24. Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her [1:14]
Franz Xaver GRUBER Stille Nacht (Silent Night) [3:04]
Gelaut der Thomaskirche zu Leipzig [1:08]
Thomanerchor Leipzig/Joachim Rotzsch
CD 2
Michael PRÆTORIUS (1571-1621)
Weihnachtliche Chormusik (Choral Music for Christmas) [51:05]
Meine Seel erhebt den Herren (à 6) (German Magnificat) [20:11]
Enatus est Emanuel [1:33] 
Joseph, lieber Joseph mein (à 3) [3:32]
Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern [10:19]
Den die Hirten lobeten sehre/Quem pastores laudavere [3:50]
In dulci jubilo [2:25]
Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her [9:51]
Thomanerchor Leipzig
Capella Fidicinia Leipzig/Erhard Mauersberger
CD 3
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Weihnachtsoratorium, BWV248
Part I Jauchzet, frohlocket! [8:51]
Wie soll ich dich empfangen [1:25]
Er ist auf Erden kommen arm [3:35]
Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein [1:21]
Part II Sinfonia [8:40]
Brich an, du schönes Morgenlicht [1:13]
Schaut hin, dort liegt im finstren Stall [0:45]
Und alsobald war da bei dem Engel [0:13]
Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe [3:21]
So recht, ihr Engel, jauchzt und singet [0:31]
Wir singen dir in deinem Heer [1:54]
Part III Herrscher des Himmels [2:10 ]
Und da die Engel von ihnen gen Himmel fuhren [0:12]
Lasset uns nun gehen [0:57]
Er hat sein Volk getröst’ [0:51]
Dies hat er alles uns getan [0:50]
Ja, ja, mein Herz soll es bewahren [0:34]
Ich will dich mit Fleiß bewahren [1:03]
Seid froh dieweil [0:49]
Part IV Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben [6:29]
Jesus richte mein Beginnen [2:37]
Part V Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen [8:29]
Da Jesus geboren war zu Bethlehem [0:26]
Wo ist der neuborne König - Sucht ihn in meiner Brust [2:09]
Dein Glanz all Finsternis verzehrt [0:50]
Zwar ist solche Herzensstube [0:54]
Part VI Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben [5:14]
Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier [1:09]
Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen [3:54] 
Agnes Giebel (soprano), Marga Höffgen (alto), Josef Traxel (tenor), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone)
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig/Kurt Thomas