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SACD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248

  • CD 1 Numbers I-III
  • CD 2 Numbers IV-VI
Malin Hartelius, soprano
Kristina Hammerström, alto
Jörg Dürmüller, tenor
Detlef Roth, bass
Cappella Amsterdam
Combattimento Consort Amsterdam/Jan Willem de Vriend
Challenge Classics 76607 Hybrid Multichannel SACD
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Bach's Christmas Oratorio is, of course, a collection of six otherwise originally independent cantatas celebrating the joy of birth in general, and the Christian birth with all that that implies for believers in particular. These splendid cantatas were originally intended for performance on Christmas Day; St. Stephen's Day (December 26th); the third day of Christmas; New Year's Day; the Sunday after New Year's Day and Epiphany (January 6th). Bach was clear that the cantatas were to be considered as an organic whole: in matters of key, in particular; and of orchestration (the recurring use of timpani and trumpets is notable); and a structure bound by liturgical and musical design.

The forces on this two CDs set are well aware of these requirements; they live up to the need for wholeness extremely well. There is life in their performance, a real joie de vivre, a sense of unified purpose, and a sensitive awareness of the music's origins, and how those translate to 21st-century practices. The relationships between tutti and soli, choruses and soloists, for example, are vibrant yet firm, considered yet fresh. The entire performance is consistent, and consistently communicative of everything conveyed by the text. Ultimately from the Gospels, the text is conjectured to be by Picander, who also wrote the words for the St. Matthew Passion. There is also need for a controlled sense of pace: after all, the first three cantatas were intended to be heard over three days, the second three over six. So space too is important. The conception of the "oratorio" should make the music ring without springing; dance, almost, without jumping.

Stripped to its most basic, this is music that must be performed for joy, with joy and suggesting optimism. Sure enough – without gimmicky spectacle – that is very much the tone and effect achieved by Jan Willem de Vriend with his Combattimento Consort Amsterdam together with Cappella Amsterdam. In existence for 25 years, the former has a surprisingly small discography to their credit: essentially Baroque but with some Mozart and Haydn; mostly Bach but with Handel, Vivaldi and Biber. The number of available recordings by Cappella Amsterdam is similarly small: it has a wider repertoire, which stretches back to Leonin and forward to Ligeti and Tan Dun. The professional chamber choir has been in existence for longer than Combattimento Consort Amsterdam: it was founded in 1970. Certain latitudes in phrasing and intonation which they take on these recordings are justified by their strength of interpretation and maturity. Very pleasing.

The Christmas Oratorio is rich with sound painting: horns and the hunt, ascending and descending spirits, allusions to the pastoral aspects of the season, of holy intervention and so on. De Vriend's instrumentalists are particularly adept at foregrounding this aspect of Bach's writing without overplaying it. Honest, integrated music; not "effects". Nor self-consciously, as, for instance, in exploiting the echo (symbolic of unrequited love) in the fourth cantata. It's individual instruments (timps, brass, flutes, oboi d'amore) that count, play their rôle, and blend to achieve an agreed and outward-looking whole as required.

But this release is more than two sumptuous-sounding hybrid SACDs… the recording was made in the Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, which dates from the 15th century, and was also a location for some of Koopman's Challenge Bach cantata volumes (Challenge 72201 - 72210), also reviewed on Classical Net. The Christmas Oratorio set comes bound with a 70-page hardback book in English with the texts in German and English. The substance of the book, though, is an extended essay by Robin Leaver on the liturgical origins and import of the Christmas Oratorio as well as an illuminating interview with de Vriend, and a series of photographs of mothers and children by Eddy Posthuma de Boer very much in the style of the illustrations adorning John Eliot Gardiner's SDG Bach cantata CD cycle – and surely with something of the intention – of suggesting the extra-musical import of the music.

The appeal of Combattimento Consort Amsterdam's performance here is not "extra" musical. It's salutary to be reminded of the human side of the Christian birth. Not merely because of the commercialization of the Festival, but because even some aspects of the spiritual significance of the season stand to be re-inforced in part by relating it to the family (or specifically to the mother-child relationship); and in part by stressing Christ's humanity and vulnerability. The performers have completely absorbed this aspect of the music; there is no need to labor it. There are good grounds for emphasizing the maternal given the prominence of the part of the Oratorio's alto, Kristina Hammerström representing Mary, mother of God. She sings convincingly and characterfully here – and with a perfect balance between solemnity and celebration. The articulation, diction of Hammerström (previously a violinist) emphasize the former, her light yet rich sonority the latter.

At any event, it's refreshing to experience the music as an enterprise underpinned by a definite stance, conveyed with conviction. Such a flavor stamps the singing with a personality and an equally fresh outlook that might win new admirers for the composition. Given the very reasonable price for the two CDs and printed material, it really is an excellent buy even if not all of the supplementary material is of interest. At the very least this supporting text adds to the conviction that Bach's Christmas Oratorio is a truly organic work. Indeed de Vriend comments on how much more receptive those who heard (this) music in Bach's time were to its tonalities in particular… no radios to turn on for distractions between cantatas. Hence the greater feasibility then of listening over almost two weeks, from Christmas to Epiphany. Christoph Wolff's thesis is that the Christmas Oratorio was completed in 1734/35 after Bach had written his last cycle of church cantatas (there is still a chance that two books containing cantatas after 1729 did once exist). In that case the work represents something still more special. An ensemble which has met to play the work every Christmas for ten years – as have de Vriend and these musicians – is particularly well-placed to bring to the Christmas Oratorio the attention and concentration which such a performance needs in order to be as compelling and subtle as this one certainly is.

It would be invidious to press too closely the idea that Bach wrote a "virtual'' oratorio, one whose unity depended chiefly on a structure and thematic unity that gained in strength from "surviving" the gaps consequent on performance of the six cantatas when necessarily distributed over thirteen days. Yet any performance aware of the musicology surrounding the circumstances and intentions of Bach's original conception had better be flexible and sure enough of itself to work in a variety of contexts: we are not hearing the works as Bach's congregations would have done. Yet we must not rely on something artificial. It's here that de Vriend and his players are so successful. They clearly have a great familiarity with every aspect of the words and music. There is an ebb and flow between reflective and introspective passages and movements on the one hand; and ones full of more uncloying delight on the other. De Vriend does particularly well in managing these contrasts. At the same time the strength of feeling belonging to individual moments is never lost to the (equally expertly-attained) sense of the Christmas Oratorio's overall structure. These musicians deal superbly in changing textures, balances (as already stated) and, above all, forward movement from the first note to the last.

The "competition" on CD is not so strong as one might have thought. Probably a good other choice is this season's splendid Harnoncourt (Sony 711232) if you want SACD; or Suzuki's on BIS (BIS-CD-941/2); another fine, though now somewhat dated, recording is from Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden with his Tölz Boys Choir (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77046-2). But the admirable conception of Combattimento Consort et al. is amongst the strongest contenders for your attention. In fact, this Challenge issue has a very strong claim to be the preferred reading: no-one will be disappointed with these players' Christmas Oratorio. Those who know the work well will derive recurring pleasure and nourishment from these musicians' idiomatic, contemporary and approachable interpretation. Its authority and sheer beauty will convince those new to the work. An all-round winner and thoroughly recommended.

Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey