I start, let me get my Grinch-Who-Stole-Christmas attitude out of
the way by voicing my main caveat with this recording. What possessed
Hänssler to release Helmuth Rilling's performance on three
discs when it would have very easily fit on two? Not only does this
make it considerably less marketable than Rene Jacobs' version on
Harmonia Mundi ,
but since Bach composed Parts 1-3 of the Christmas Oratorio
as a semi-integral unit, it makes perfect sense to group those sections
onto one disc.
that I have that out of the way, let me say this. If you delight
in Bach's passions or other vocal music, and you want a sprightly
and sensitive approach to the Christmas Oratorio without
dealing with the sometimes-hotly contested sound of period instruments,
check out this recording. As in his many cantata recordings, Rilling
shows considerable empathy to both text and music while keeping
things moving and eliciting inspired playing and singing from his
forces. Recording this work live as a six-performance cycle between
December 25, 1999 and January 6, 2000 gave an added spark and a
sense of occasion to the proceedings, which comes through very well
on these discs.
Rilling has done away in this recording with the harpsichord continuo
whose over-busyness sometimes plagued his cantatas, though that
instrument's occasionally hectoring quality was as much the result
of overzealous engineering as it was a performance practice. As
much as some may miss the instrument, its lack can allow one to
pay better attention to everything else going on. With that plus
modern instruments and a generally high level of performance, but
without the ponderousness of some older versions, this is about
as user-friendly a non-period recording as you are probably going
the inveterate Dr. Andreas Bomba writes in his notes, by the time
Bach celebrated his 45th birthday in 1730, he was going through
something of a mid-life crisis. He had already written the St.
Matthew and St. John Passions and finished the fourth
annual cycle of cantatas. What was there left to do? He was also
thoroughly disenchanted with life at St. Thomas School (depicted
on right) in Leipzig as well as with his sometimes thorny relationship
with the town council, although Bach brought many challenges onto
himself with his own prickly nature. Yet with an ever-growing family
to support, Bach realized it would prove exceedingly difficult to
uproot and move elsewhere at this stage in his life.
the time Bach finished writing the B minor Missa brevis in 1733
(which he would expand in 1747-48 into the Mass in B minor), he
started thinking of another, more challenging project within the
scope of his duties as music director - writing oratorios for the
main holidays of the ecclesiastical year. Around the end of the
year 1734-35, the Oratorio Project commenced with the Christmas
Oratorio, followed by an oratorio for Easter and one for the Feast
these works followed the "parody" principle of composition
- in other words, Bach set new texts to music he had previously
written for other projects. This may sound easier than it actually
is. Bach scholar and musicologist Christoph Wolff writes, "The
parody process involved
close attention to the relationship
between the meaning of the words and the affect and character of
the music. Other considerations, such as scoring and key changes,
also played a role when a single movement was placed in a new context
composition was hard work, and Bach did not use it merely as a form
of creative cribbing. Again, Wolff writes, "[Bach's] reuse
of his own composition was motivated not by any intention of cutting
corners - that is, turning to existing music out of convenience
- but by rescuing important material for a more durable purpose
Nothing made more sense to Bach than to use the birthday music for
a royal family as music to celebrate the nativity of Christ, the
king of heaven."
with this extensive use of parody, Bach organized the six parts
of this work to lend it an unusual degree of coherence. As both
Wolff and Dr. Bomba point out, since the first three parts were
to be played on consecutive days, they are formally more self-enclosed
than the last three parts. They share the identical brass scoring
and home keys (D major) for Parts 1 and 3, and Part 2 in the subdominant
key of G Major.
we come to Part 4, to be performed on New Year's Day, we are given
a new key (F major) as well as having horns introduced into the
orchestral fabric. The orchestral forces are lightened in Part 5,
for the Sunday after New Year's, but Bach counterbalances the subdominant
G-major key of Part 2 with the dominant A major of the main key,
D major, which returns with trumpets and timpani in Part 6 for the
feast of Epiphany.
this framework, Bach created a musico-dramatic canvas of startling
immediacy while staying within the general confines of the sermons
and Gospel readings for the particular church days in which the
music would be heard - an approach embracing both emotional participation
and audience comprehension. Again and again, there is the sequence
of Gospel (reading), recitative (contemplation), aria (prayer) and
chorale that Bach used continually in writing his sacred cantatas.
so, Bach's main focus in the Christmas Oratorio was in keeping
the cycle as a dramatic whole, and he deviated from the Scripture
readings in two places. He divides the Gospel for Christmas (Luke
2:1-14) between Parts 1 and 2 - the first two days of Christmas
- and shifts the Scripture for the day after Christmas (Luke 2:15-20)
onto Part 3. Although this division of texts may seem unusual, it
had to be approved by the leaders of the parish for Bach to proceed,
and other composers before Bach had established a tradition of using
more compact "Christmas Stories."
course, all of Bach's careful planning can seem interminable in
the wrong hands, especially if one listens to all six parts in one
sitting - something not generally recommended. With Rilling at the
helm, no such challenge arises. From the opening chorus, his orchestra
and chorus practically leap out of the speakers with joy and vitality.
The chorus is especially full-toned for a group of 35 members, and
keeps up with Rilling's lively tempi with no problems whatsoever.
The orchestra does play a little mechanically at times, such as
in the Sinfonia that opens Part 2, but is generally assured, flexible
and excellent at setting tone and accompanying the singers.
soloists are also generally good. Tenor James Taylor sounds quavery
as the Evangelist but is a compelling storyteller and shapes his
recitatives with telling effect. His contribution in Part 5 is especially
moving. Marcus Ullmann, who sings the tenor arias, is especially
good in the "laughing" figures in his Part 2 aria "Joyful
shepherds, haste, au hasten." He gives riveting conviction
to the Part 3 aria "I would but for thine honor live now,"
singing with a dedication that is infectious, and he blends extermely
well with Alto Ingeborg Danz and Soprano Sibylla Rubens in the Part
5 trio, "My dearest ruleth now."
has the perfect voice for this work - full and velvety but not too
rich or plumy, with good diction, an excellent sense of line and
shading, and trills that are incredibly lovely. When she sings,
"Prepare thyself, Zion, with tender affection" in Part
1, there is a true sense of warmth and care in her voice. Her Part
3 aria "Keep thou my heart now, this most blessed wonder"
is compelling; accompanied by organ and a solo violin, her voice
carries an almost heartbreaking amount of emotion as she echoes
the concerns of the Virgin Mary. You can almost imagine her choking
back tears. Yet in the following recitative, "Oh yes, my heart
shall ever cherish," Danz allows just the right amount of hope
and motherly love to break through; though there is no real lightening
of emotion, the sense of acceptance in the miracle Mary has helped
bring forth is both convincing and extremely moving
Hanno Müller-Brachmann is a little breathy but shapes his lines
convincingly and phrases in long spans. Still, he is the weak link
in the chain of soloists since he does not bind his notes together
too smoothly. I had an especially hard time with his Part 5 aria,
"Illumine, too, my gloomy spirit"; though he captured
the general mood of this aria well enough, the lumpiness in his
delivery made his contribution less pleasurable than that of the
other singers. At times like this, I truly missed the presence of
Wolfgang Schöne, who sang in many of the Rilling cantata recordings,
though Muller-Brachmann's voice is generally solid and would be
less objectionable to someone who does not mind his detaché
approach to the notes.
voice has a freshness that is welcome here, and she is adept at
nuance. Her Part 3 duet with Müller-Brachmann, "Lord,
thy mercy, thy forgiveness / Comforts us and sets us free,"
is especially well-shaped and gives the music the sense of freedom
and release echoed in the text; the words "Here make thy paternal
faith / New again" literally takes flight as though a bird
just released from its cage. Her Part 3 aria "Doth my Savior,
doth thy name here" is beautifully phrased; the music is not
only caressed but breathes naturally with a lilting flow to the
despite my personal qualms, this is an extremely attractive performance
that I cannot recommend highly enough. If there were one Bach recording
that fully captured the joy, enthusiasm and sense of renewal that
the birth of Christ promised, this is definitely it.
Wolff, Christoph, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician
(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000), 383-386.
thoroughly renewed by this recording.
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