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A Bottomless Bucket of Bach - Christmas Oratorio
By Donald Satz (April 2000)

Contents

The Recordings
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Feedback to the Article

 

Recordings

1

J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio · Weihnachsoratorium · Oratorio de Noël

Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248/1-6 [24:43, 26:56, 21:07, 21:43, 21:35, 23:25]

John Eliot Gardiner

Monteverdi Choir / English Baroque Soloists

Tenor [Evangelist]: Anthony Rolfe-Johnson; Soprano [Angel]: Ruth Holton; Soprano [Echo]: Katie Pringle; Bass [Herodes, arias]: Olaf Bär; Soprano: Nancy Argenta; Mezzo-soprano: Anne Sophie von Otter; Tenor: Hans Peter Blochwitz
Harpsichord: Paul Nicholson

Archiv Produktion

Jan 1987

2-CD / TT: 140:04

Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, London, England.
1st recording of Weihnachts-Oratorium by J.E. Gardiner.
See: BWV 248 Weihnachts-Oratorium - conducted by John Eliot Gardiner
Buy this album at:
2-CD: Amazon.com
CD: Amazon.com (Highlights)

2

J.S. Bach: Weihnachts-Oratorium - Christmas Oratorio - Oratorio de Noël

Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248/1-6

Philippe Herreweghe

Chorus and Orchestra of Collegium Vocale Gent

Soprano: Barbara Schlick; Alto: Michael Chance; Tenor: Howard Crook; Bass: Peter Kooy

Virgin Classics 59530
MHS

Jan 1989

2-CD / TT: 149:38

Recorded at Mindersbroederskerk, Ghent, Belgium.
Buy this album at:
2-CD: Amazon.com | Amazon.com

3

J.S. Bach: Weihnachts-Oratorium · Oratorio de Noël · Christmas Oratorio

Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248/1-6

René Jacobs

RIAS-Kammerchor / Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

Soprano: Dorothea Röschmann; Alto: Andreas Scholl; Tenor: Werner Güra; Bass: Klaus Häger

Harmonia Mundi France

Jan 1997

2-CD / TT: 152:23

See: Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248 - conducted by René Jacobs
Buy this album at:
2-CD: Amazon.com | Amazon.com | Amazon.com
Music Download: ClassicsOnline

4

J.S. Bach: Weihnachts-Oratorium · Christmas Oratorio · Oratorio de Noël

Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248/1-6

Ton Koopman

Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir (Chorus Master: Simon Schouten)

Soprano: Lisa Larsson; Alto: Elisabeth von Magnus; Tenor: Christoph Prégardien; Bass: Klaus Mertens

Erato 14635

Apr 12-20, 1996

2-CD / TT: 143:25

Recorded at Waalsekerk, Amsterdam, Holland.
Buy this album at:
2-CD: Amazon.com

A Bottomless Bucket of Bach – Christmas Oratorio, Part 1
(April 4, 2000)

Bach's Christmas Oratorio, as with the Inventions, does not have quite the stature of its more illustrious companion works including the B minor Mass and the St. Matthew Passion. That's probably because it is a festive work mainly in major keys. Also, most of the arias are "parodies" - the music already existed in Bach secular cantatas and was set to new text. The Christmas Oratorio has six parts, each one for a particular Christmas day. The work was composed for the 1734-35 season when Bach was 50 years old.

Four versions are being compared: Gardiner on Archiv(1987), Herreweghe on Virgin (1989), Jacobs on Harmonia Mundi (1996), and Koopman on Erato (1997). Gardiner was my introduction to the work, and I've considered his version the most appealing although, until now, I have not directly compared it to any alternatives. Gardiner tends to use a theatrical approach to Bach's choral works, and this can work very well with the festive Christmas Oratorio. Of course, Herreweghe, Jacobs, and Koopman are outstanding HIP conductors, so the comparisons should be interesting and highly competitive. At this point, the main thing to keep in mind is that this work is a celebratory one.

I do want to relate that I am not comparing any modern instrument recordings because, due to my preferences, I would not be able to do them justice. Also, I unfortunately do not have the acclaimed Suzuki version on BIS which has not received extensive U.S. distribution, although I noted that CD World seems to carry it.

Part 1 of the Christmas Oratorio contains much outstanding music. The opening Coro is a deliciously festive and power-driven piece lasting almost eight minutes. The brass are highlighted and very important to the music's intensity. Gardiner is perfect here; pacing is superb, excitement is high, and the brass playing and projection is a joy to behold. But the choral work isn't as good as in the Jacobs version which isn't distinctive with the brass. Put the two versions together and you have the perfect performance. Lower in quality is Herreweghe whose brass are excessively piercing although there is some fine choral work. Koopman's has little to offer. The brass are underprojected, and there's nothing distinctive concerning the chorus. But Gardiner and Jacobs provide great readings. This opening is every bit as good as the one in the St. Matthew Passion, although of an entirely different emotional level. I've been listening to the different versions of the piece at full blast for over 2 hours. I think my wife feels like heading for the hills; I feel like leading an invasion of Columbia to confiscate all the cocaine. This music has impact.

Next come two recitatives; the first is for the Evangelist (tenor) and the second for alto voice with instrumental accompaniment. The Evangelists are Christoph Prégardien for Koopman, Anthony Rolfe Johnson for Gardiner, Werner Gura for Jacobs, and Howard Crook for Herreweghe. All are excellent except for Gura whose voice is likeable but not memorable. The alto recitative is a gorgeous one with some lovely wind contribution; nobody wrote the music to recitatives as well as Bach. Two versions, Jacobs and Gardiner, feature world-famous vocalists: Andreas Scholl and Anne Sofie von Otter. Scholl does very well, but von Otter takes the prize. In addition, Gardiner's winds are delectable and clearly projected; Jacob's are diffuse. The other two versions also do not stand up well to Gardiner. Koopman doesn't place sufficient emphasis on the winds and his vocalist, Elisabeth von Magnus, can't compare to von Otter. Herreweghe does well with the winds, but his singer, Michael Chance, provides the least effective performance of the four vocalists.

A very interesting alto aria follows the two recitatives. This is Germanic music to the core with an infectious swagger. My opinion is that Bach wanted an alto to add a husky weight to the music. At the same time, the alto voice needs to exude a frailty in keeping with the text. Gardiner and Koopman use moderate tempos and have their pulse on the music. But, von Otter, while husky enough, does not display sufficient frailty. Elisabeth von Magnus for Koopman has the weight and frailty; that gives Koopman's version the edge. Herreweghe's interpretation tends to drag a little, and Michael Chance has no weight at all. Jacobs sounds a bit rushed, and Scholl also has insufficient weight. To get the full impact of this aria, Koopman's version is needed.

One of the most famous and masterful choral pieces in the literature follows the alto aria. "Wie soll ich dich empfangen" is amazing music and gives testimony to the immense human creative potential. This piece raises me up high and with three gentle steps drops me back to Earth with a renewed spirit. All four versions do the music full justice. Jacobs adopts a very slow tempo, but this fits in well with the music. I can't imagine any person not responding to this masterpiece.

A recitative from the Evangelist precedes a combined chorale for sopranos and bass recitative. As before, the only Evangelist not quite up to snuff is Werner Gura for Jacobs; Prégardien for Koopman is proving to be superb as his voice is highly expressive, vocally secure, and has plenty of weight/impact. The chorale/recitative features oboes, sopranos, and bass. In an excellent performance, the oboes are prominent yet peaceful, the sopranos are well projected and beautifully reverential, and the bass is strong and appealing. Gardiner provides all of that; it's a superb performance and Olaf Bar is perfection. Jacob's oboes and bass, Klaus Hager, are good but not up to Gardiner's level. Herreweghe and Koopman were not enjoyable nor enlightening, and their decisions dubious. Herreweghe makes two critical mistakes. He only uses one soprano, and the one he uses is Barbara Schlick; she can be an ordeal to listen to. Koopman also makes two mistakes, although the 2nd could come from a different source. Koopman's whole approach to the piece is too subdued, and the sopranos are under-projected as well. The second problem is that at least two oboe notes are missing from the conclusion. That's right. First, they take repeats away from us; now they're stealing the notes. I don't know where they went.

Technical problem? Interpretive decision? Whatever it is, I don't like it. Herreweghe and Koopman really hit my negative buttons here. No points for them.

Part 1 of the Christmas Oratorio concludes with a bass aria followed by a chorale. The bass aria is, for me, a delightfully "macho" piece of music. There's an infectious swagger to the music generated by trumpets and the bass voice. When I listen, I can see myself swaggering down the street after spending the night with three lovely women (choose your own number and gender for maximum imagery). The guys on the sidewalk are looking at me with envy and respect (I'm very shallow); the women outside feel that they've missed out on a special event. No wonder I feel good every time I listen to this aria.

Now to the four versions of the bass aria. I was really interested in hearing how Olf Bar would do for Gardiner since he was so effective in the bass recitative. As it happens, Bar is great in the aria, and so is Gardiner. But, Klaus Mertens for Koopman is every bit as good, maybe better, and Koopman is equal to Gardiner. Herreweghe and Jacobs do a fine job, but their soloists, Peter Kooy and Klaus Hager, respectively, can't touch Bar or Mertens. So, Gardiner and Koopman head the list.

The concluding chorale is about the best ending to a work I could hope for. It's quite similar to the famous chorale earlier in Part 1 except for one big difference. The chorale shares center stage with a fanfare of trumpets interspersed in the music. And this is no ordinary Baroque fanfare; it's a stroke of genius as to when they ring out, how fantastic they sound, and how perfectly they mesh with the chorus. Each of the versions is very good without being superb. Koopman's trumpets are sometimes underprojected, and Herreweghe and Gardiner are a little too quick. I have mixed feelings about Jacobs. He employs a slow tempo which suits the music very well, but he greatly softens the chorus and trumpets in the second and third verses. To me, that interpretive decision robs the chorale of some strength and momentum. But, I could well understand others considering the decision an excellent one. Overall, I rate the four versions as equal.

For Part 1, Gardiner easily is the best version. The wind and brass are very important to Part 1, and Gardiner is excellent here. Gardiner also has the advantage of von Otter, Johnson, and Bar. And, the pacing that Gardiner employs is great. Jacobs and Koopman do well; Koopman's trio of soloists (von Magnus, Prégardien, Mertens) are as good as Gardiner's. Jacobs is let down some by his vocalists, and that does include Scholl to a degree. He doesn't sound as good as in the other recordings I have of his. Herreweghe is at the bottom; I expected better of Peter Kooy, and Michael Chance is not competitive at all.

The next posting will cover Part 2. It's important to note that of the soprano soloists, only Barbara Schlick has had the opportunity to display her talents. Nancy Argenta for Gardiner, Dorothea Roschmann for Jacobs, and Lisa Larsson for Koopman must wait for Part 3 to show how good they are. My perceptions before surveying are that Argenta might be a problem and Roschmann could well be outstanding; I don't have much memory of Larsson. I'm very skeptical of Schlick.

 

A Bottomless Bucket of Bach - Christmas Oratorio, Part 2
(April 7, 2002)

Part 2 of the Christmas Oratorio begins with a sinfonia. In good hands, the piece is excellent. In the right hands, it's as good as music can be. The sinfonia presents a kaleidoscope of colors and positive emotions. Both the stringed instruments and oboes have prominent roles. I started by listening to Gardiner and Koopman; they did very well, and both clocked in at a little over 5 minutes.

Jacobs was next and his tempo was very slow, 2 minutes longer than the other two. That wasn't a problem; it gives the music a more reflective quality. Then came Herreweghe and I enveloped the music within seconds; it opened up and I plunged right in. Everything was so crisp and clear, each instrument was well defined, and the kaleidoscope was sensational. Herreweghe gives me a magical performance. Even if the rest of the disc was blank, I'd gladly pay full price for his sinfonia. It's that good.

Following the sinfonia is a recitative for the Evangelist and a chorale. The situation among the Evangelists remains the same; Werner Gura, for Jacobs, is not quite as good as the others. The chorale is a very fine piece affirming the arriof the savior. Actually, it's quite beautiful when performed by Jacobs, Koopman, and Herreweghe. Gardiner takes the piece too quicky; there's insufficient time to savor the arrival of the savior. Also, his chorus is not particularly well blended. Koopman is even faster than Gardiner, but I hardly noticed it, and his chorus sings beautifully. Jacobs uses the slowest tempo and provides a gorgeous rendition. Only Gardiner does not deliver excellence. And, I am sensing that cracks in Gardiner's armor are being revealed here in Part 2 which doesn't possess the highly festive and celebratory nature of Part 1.

Next comes a recitative for Evangelist and Angel and a recitative for bass. The first recitative continues the affirmation expressed in the previous chorale and is a lovely piece. But, only Koopman's angel sounds appropriate and pleasant. Jacob's angel is too dramatic, Gardiner's is not of pleasant voice, and Schlick, for Herreweghe, is still a problem. In the bass recitative, Jacobs and Herreweghe have the lesser soloists in Klaus Hager and Peter Kooy. Klaus Mertens and Olaf Bar continue their excellent contributions. Concerning Koopman, he is doing very well in Part 2. It could be that Part 1 was just not his type of music - he might have a very serious nature.

A bass aria follows which is set to a rousing text. I find Bach's music here relatively subdued given the text, but it's a fine aria which becomes excellent in Herreweghe's hands. He has the pulse of the music. Also, the flute playing of Marc Hantai is sensational, and Peter Kooy delivers a stunning performance. It's a perfect rendition all around. The other three versions have problems. Klaus Hager, for Jacobs, is not distinctive, Gardiner doesn't have his pulse on the music, and Koopman actually delivers a "downer" type performance which is just the opposite of the text. Just when I start praising Koopman, he comes up with the blues. I'm definitely not going to invite him to perform at my grandson's birthday party.

Next comes a recitative for Evangelist, a chorale, and a recitative for bass, each less than one minute in duration. The Evangelist informs that the infant is lying in a manger, the chorale expresses the "wonder" of the infant and his lying in a dark stable, and the bass recitative speaks of singing to the infant a lullaby and lulling him to sleep. The chorale is done very well in each version, with Jacobs going very slowly but beautifully. The bass recitative is very interesting. Bach had to create the sense of lulling a baby to sleep, and he did this with a bass voice. For the piece to be most effective, both the conductor and bass singer must convey the feeling of slow trip into slumber. Gardiner and particularly Koopman do this quite well and their singers (Bar and Mertens) are superb as well. Hager, for Jacobs, is fairly good. Neither Herreweghe nor Kooy convey more than a minimum sense of falling into slumber.

Next is a lovely alto aria conveying the joy, beauty, and great love and significance of the infant. It's a lot to convey, and Michael Chance, for Herreweghe, does it all. His voice rings out clearly but never in a strident fashion - a superb performance. Herreweghe does well but not as good as Gardiner whose orchestral contributions are the best of the four. His von Otter is good, but not close to Chance's level. Koopman is fine, and I preferred the von Magnus lighter voice to von Otter. Jacobs is rather slow and Scholl is at von Otter's level. So Herreweghe's version is very special with Gardiner and Koopman doing well. The slow tempos of Jacobs are somewhat debilitating and can negatively impact the themes of the work. His soloists don't improve matters, but there might be some fine help on the way from Dorothea Roschmann.

Following the alto aria is a very short Evangelist recitative and then a foot-stomping chorale expressing joy, peace, and goodwill. This chorale has a bass line that won't quit and provides quite a sense of forward momentum. Bach takes the basic theme and turns it and twists it just enough to insure continued interest; he also varies the volume similarly. Koopman and Herreweghe are relatively slow but still express all the emotions of the piece. Jacobs surprised me with the fastest tempo; his chorale really flys and it's quite exciting although not fully in keeping with the text. Gardiner gives the best performance; he has his pulse on the music and the chorus does very well. His is a thrilling rendition. Volume controls should be up high for Gardiner.

Part 2 concludes with a bass recitative and chorale. Concerning the bass recitative, Klaus Hager, for Jacobs, continues not to distinguish himself. But the main thing here is the chorale. Its text is uplifting and somewhat robust. I need to digress a little at this point. I don't have any routine as to the listening order; I just take from the top at the time. But every now and then, it turns out that the order is just right. For the chorale, I started with Jacobs. His was a gorgeous performance and his choir superb. But I noticed that the very serious reverence of his conception did veer from the themes of the text. Next came Koopman and I detected a "bounce" to the music. Then Gardiner gave me more bounce than Koopman. Finally, Herreweghe had the most bounce of all and the fastest tempo. All this bouncing was interesting. I realized its fidelity to the text; that was good. I also realized that it conveyed more of the creativity of Bach's music than the Jacobs approach. But, my ultimate decision is to go with Jacobs because his version is so beautiful and his chorus perfect. The text will just have to take a backseat to the music on this one.

That's the end of Part 2. Herreweghe's performance was the best and highlighted by a transcendent Sinfonia and alto aria. Jacobs did not do well. More than anything else, his vocal soloists are dragging him down. So far, not one of them has excelled in any of the music. It's not that they are a disagreeable lot, but that the competition is very strong. Koopman continues to do well, and his soloists are very good. Overall, Gardiner is still best, but that's primarily due to his outstanding Part 1.

Addendum to Part 2 (April 10, 2000)

In my survey of Part 2, I described the first aria as being one for bass singer and singled out Peter Kooy as being "stunning" for Herreweghe and Klaus Hager as not distictive for Jacobs. I don't know where my brain was at that moment, but the correction is that it was a *tenor* aria. So, the stunning Herreweghe soloist was Howard Crook and Jacob's tenor was Walter Gura. The other comments and the conclusion that Herreweghe's version of the aria was superb remain as is.

 

A Bottomless Bucket of Bach - Christmas Oratorio, Part 3
(April 9, 2002)

Part 3 begins with a rousing and highly celebratory Coro. Exquisite trumpets, excellent choral work, and great propulsion support the music's themes of exultation, happiness, and the joy/wonder of redemption. The nod goes to Jacobs. His version is the fastest and provides the most propulsion; his chorus is excellent as well. And, there's something in Jacob's performance which is different from the others; he uses a one voice per part approach in the less robust sections of the Coro. More than a nice touch, it's an excellent interpretive decision providing a fine contrast with the remainder of the piece without harming the themes of the text. Jacob's advantage here is not large as each of the other versions is fully idiomatic.

Next is a very short Evangelist recitative, an energetic chorale, a calming bass recitative, and a stately/lovely chorus. It's all over in about 2 minutes. Jacobs is fastest in the chorale and the most effective; he also does the chorus very well. But, his bass, Klaus Hager, is again not of appealing voice. Overall, Jacobs has a little edge on the other versions.

It's about time for an aria, and this one's for soprano and bass. The text concerns freedom of the soul, and the music is very upbeat, pleasing, and even a little bubbly. Gardiner is the one who's bubbly as he offers the fastest pace, clocking in at a little under seven minutes. Hiis the finest version, not because of his pacing, but because of his soloists, Nancy Argenta and Olaf Bar. In a duet the voices need to blend well; simply putting two great soloists together doesn't carry any automatic results. I've mentioned before that I'm not a big fan of Argenta, but she and Bar go together perfectly. Jacobs has Dorothea Roschmann and Klaus Hager; Roschmann is very good but not as a partner for Hager. I'm not sure anyone could partner well with Hager. Herreweghe's Barbara Schlick and Peter Kooy aren't close to being a match, and they don't sound excellent when in solo mode either. Koopman is a good example that excellent soloists need not make excellent partners; Lisa Larsson and Klaus Mertens each have fine voices, but they have no chemistry together (vocal or emotional). I felt like they were singing from different buildings. Gardiner's the one.

Next is another Evangelist recitative, but of more musical substance. I expected Jacob's Werner Gura, as usual, to be less appealing of voice than the others, but he did fine.

The next aria is for alto, and I want to emphasize that all the soloists (von Otter, von Magnus, Chance, Scholl) were very good or better. The better is in the person of von Magnus who's fantastic. There's a lovely frailty to her voice which is perfect for a text dealing with the need that we weak humans have for the devine. Herreweghe's version deserves special mention for the fantastic baroque violin contribution; if you ever wonder why many people love baroque violins, this version provides the answer. Just listen to the opening of the piece as you're taken to the absolute edge of the envelope, loving every moment of it. The other versions don't get you there. Overall, Jacobs and Gardiner are fine in the aria, Herreweghe is special, and Koopman is best. Slowly but steadily, Koopman keeps gaining ground on Gardiner, mainly due to his vocal soloists who are doing great.

Remaining with altos, we have a lovely recitative that von Magnus excels in. von Otter and Scholl do well; Chance's voice sounds unattractive. Then there's a chorus that speaks of a "timeless other life". Koopman's is the version that leads me there. Gardiner is a little too fast with Jacobs too slow. Herreweghe's has no magic.

A short Evangelist recitative and a devotional chorus follow. Jacobs and Herreweghe use a slow pace in the chorus; it doesn't quite work for Herreweghe, but Jacobs is excellent - rock solid. Gardiner's chorus is not as well blended as the others. Koopman is as solid as Herreweghe, but his tempo is a little too quick. The nod goes to Jacobs with Koopman second.

Part 3 concludes with a Coro da capo which is a repeat of the beginning of Part 3. Jacobs, using a one voice per part approach in the inital Coro, gave the most stunning performance. As to whether I would "double-count" it at this point became no concern at all since Jacobs makes the interpretive decision to dump one part per voice the second time around. I don't think much of the decision, and it puts Jacobs back in the pack on this Coro.

Koopman was best in Part 3 as his choral work was very good and his vocal soloists excellent, particularly van Magnus. Koopman is now about equal to Gardiner at the mid-point of the Christmas Oratorio. Jacobs is on the bottom; his best opportunity to improve his position would require a change of tenor and bass soloists - that won't happen.

 

A Bottomless Bucket of Bach - Christmas Oratorio, Part 4
(April 10, 2002)

Part 4 starts out with a happy, hopeful, and uplifting Coro of moderate tempo. The most significant theme of the text is one of quenching the rage and fury of the enemy. This could be read as a "crushing" of the enemy, but Bach's music sees it as a divine intervention which engenders good will in all ememies. It's a nice idea which just hasn't taken hold yet and likely never will. The timings of the version are different, but the spirit and quality of the interpretations are very similar. Jacobs clocks in at 5 minutes, Koopman at 6 minutes, and Gardiner and Herreweghe at the mid-point. The music is very good and immediately appealing.

Up next is a fine Evangelist recitative followed by a bass recitative which turns into either a duet or continues as a recitative with sopranos in the background. Both approaches can be excellent. Koopman has sopranos in the background; they sound delicious with Klaus Mertens giving an outstanding performance. Jacobs uses the same approach but his sopranos don't sound heavenly and Klaus Hager is merely competent. The duet approach is superb with Nancy Argenta and Olaf Bar working wonders for Gardiner, not so good with Barbara Schlick and Peter Kooy for Herreweghe. Koopman and Gardiner's are the versions of choice.

With the next aria, one for soprano, I'm thinking of comfort, serenity, patience, doubt, order, emotional support, eating crow, and echoes. I've always thought that Bach was musically patient and orderly; that's a combination I generally find irresistable in music and people (I don't possess much of either). The soprano aria is a model of patience and order; everything unfolds comfortably and with precision. Oboes are featured and they appreciably support patience and order. What's with the echoes? There's a soprano echo voice in each version. The singer is not emotionally quite sure of the divinity of the infant or the extent of the infant's powers. The echo is a voice to give greater strength to the singer to maintain a constancy of faith in god and spirit. In Jacob's version, the more recessed oboe even provides an echo of its own. Although I must admit that I didn't find the soprano echoes musically advantageous, they have great meaning to the text.

Doubt which leads to the need for emotional support looms large in my preferred version. Each recording offers most of what the aria requires for it to be superb music set to text. All the oboe playing is fine with Gardiner's at the top (he's usually great with brass and winds). Dorothea Roshmann, Nancy Argenta, and Lisa Larsson deliver very good performances, but it's Barbara Schlick for Herreweghe who outshines them. First, her voice in this aria largely steers clear of the tendency for it to break and waver. Second, "doubt" and "ambivalence" are embedded in Schlick's Interpretation. And I'm eating crow because I didn't think there was any chance that Schlick would do anything but bring Herreweghe down.

Schlick continues her questioning ways in the bass recitative with soprano (or soprani) choral. Schlick no longer has any doubts about the Lord; now, she (and the bass) question how best to praise and thank the Lord. Again, Schlick is superb; she owns this area of emotions. The other versions are good. Jacobs is the slowest but effective; he uses soprani, so does Koopman. Gardiner does well with one soprano. But these three versions, particularly Gardiner and Koopman, have their female singers recessed in the soundstage. I see no text related reason for this decision, and Schlick is ample proof that it is more musically enriching for soprano and bass to share center stage in this piece.

It's now time for the tenors to shine in an aria of forward motion where the violins and tenor share center stage. The instrumental passages of the aria are fantastic as they give the violins the opportunity to take the listener on a great journey to the edge of the universe. Herreweghe's violins do just that with perfection. Herreweghe has the slowest tempo which is just right for bringing out all the detail of every violin, gaining intimacy with the istruments, and spending more time with them; he does all this without sacrificing any excitement. His tenor, Howard Crook does well, but the piece does lag a little as Crook does not quite stay in tune with Herreweghe's pacing. After Herreweghe, I ate dinner, then commenced with Gardiner. He's very fast, and his violins sacrifice all that Herreweghe's display; Hans-Peter Blochwitz is at Crook's level. Jacob's violins are quite good, although not in Herreweghe's class; Werner Gura is okay. Koopman's advantage is having Christoph Prégardien who brings life and beauty to the . All told, Herreweghe and Koopman are the better renditions.

The concluding choral is a very attractive piece. The text is about beseeching Jesus for a number of things including "curbing the senses". Koopman will have no curbing of the senses; just the opposite, he flies through this choral piece obliterating any sense of the text. More important, the music sounds worse for it. It has no depth, no significance, and is more of a caricature. Jacobs is at the other end of the tempo range; he is slow, and it works well. Jacob's version is definitely in keeping with the text and quite beautiful, but it is not the best. Herreweghe and Gardiner have the moderate tempos with Herreweghe doing as well as Jacobs. Gardiner's is special. His pacing is perfect, and the interpretation gives meaning to every musical phrase. Gardiner provides an infectious bounce to the music, and he is within the boundaries of a "beseeching" theme as his version displays some eagerness. Also, his oboes are achingly beautiful.

Herreweghe was the most effective in Part 4, largely due to Barbara Schlick and the violin contributions which were outstanding. Herreweghe has been competitive with Gardiner and Koopman. Jacobs has not, and I feel some regret about it as he has provided some stunning choral work and the more unusual tempos. The tempos have worked well at times, but his tenor and bass are not competitive and those roles are frequent in the work.

 

A Bottomless Bucket of Bach - Christmas Oratorio, Part 5
(April 15, 2002)

The opening Coro is a rousing and joyous piece. I don't feel it's one of Bach's most inspired Coros, but it has a nice central theme which is varied sufficiently to maintain interest and some fine instrumental contributions. Among the versions, it's a tale of two tempos. Koopman and Herreweghe employ a moderately quick pace at about 7 minutes; Gardiner and Jacobs prefer a very fast speed of 6 minutes. Herreweghe and Jacobs prove that both ends are highly effective. Herreweghe provides the best orchestral support and pulse to the music; Jacobs has the best chorus and keeps everything well blended at high speed; that's not easy. Gardiner wasn't on a high octane blend for this piece; he appears rushed. Koopman's problem is the orchestra - too soft toned and recessed. It takes some of joy out of the proceedings.

A short Evangelist recitative precedes a choral with alto recitative which expresses the strength of human spirit. The choral parts are robust and affirmative; the alto parts reflect the strength surging through the body and soul. Gardiner does very well and von Otter excellently displays the strength of spirit. Her voice is strong and full; von Magnus, Scholl, and Chance lack strong voice in comparison.

A chorale follows which is short but beautiful and stately. The text concerns the eternal light as it removes all darkness. Koopman is best here - reverential, uplifting, and musically satisfying with a delightful trill of voices at the end of the piece. The remaining versions are of relatively equal enjoyment.

I'd like to digress a little about the vocal soloist contributions. Using von Otter as an example, there have been times when I've applauded her singing/interpretion and others when I was less enthusiastic. Do I think she's inconsistent? Not at all. Von Otter has a very strong/constant voice which is naturally going to be most appealing when expressing strength and determination. When some frailty is called for, an alto like von Magnus is more appealing. Strength is not what Barbara Schlick is good for, but she is irresistable for roles requiring a sense of confusion and ambivalence. And these and other differences apply to all the vocalists.

Next is a strikingly beautiful bass aria featuring the oboe; this piece just keeps sounding better with each listening. The music expresses the "light" and "illumination" of the human spirit. In a superb rendition, the bass must reflect and actually be that illumination. For Herreweghe, Peter Kooy is the perfect light; his characterization is outstanding. In addition, Herreweghe provides excellent pacing, and the interplay between voice and oboe is stunning. The other versions are very good, but not transcendent as the Herreweghe. For Jacobs, Klaus Hager puts out his best effort.

A very short Evangelist recitative is followed by a recitative for alto. King Herod is not exactly thrilled to hear of the birth of Jesus - significant competition was not in his plans. But the alto advises Herod to shape up and rejoice at the promise of the restoration of human well-being; I'd say that the alto and Herod had different goals in mind. Concerning the performances, the altos do a good job except for Michael Chance for Herreweghe. I'll try to put this as diplomatically as I can - Chance sounds horrible; I have no idea what his problem was, but this track cries out for a re-take. Fortunately, it's only about 30 seconds long.

Next is a stunning Evangelist recitative where he actually gets the opportunity to do some singing. Starting out as a straight recitative, the piece suddenly yet naturally turns into a beautiful tenor aria. This is a device Bach often uses to perfection. At first, the change he develops appears "off the wall", but after a couple of listenings, it's the most natural move one could think of. Knowing of the aria elements of the piece, I was expecting that either Anthony Rolfe Johnson or Christoph Prégardien would represent the music best. But, to my surprise, Howard Crook/Herreweghe provide the superb rendition. Crook sounds great and is the most expressive; Herreweghe's pacing is superior to the others as well.

Now is the opportunity to listen to an Aria Terzetto for soprano, alto, and bass. As difficult as it is for two soloists to blend well together, the challenge is magnified when the third soloist arrives. The soprano pleadingly asks, "Oh, when will the time be ripe"?, referring to the coming of Jesus. Schlick sounds ever so ripe, and she can plead with the best; Schlick is the highlight artist for this aria. And her partners, Chance (much better here) and Crook, mesh very well together and with her. The other versions are fine; they just don't have Schlick. Tempos vary greatly from Koopman's four and one-half minutes to Herreweghe's six and one-half, and I found the music equally effective throughout the range.

Part 5 concludes with an alto recitative and a chorale. The recitative is a tribute to Jesus, and von Otter provides it with a strong but loving voice; Gardiner's oboes are superb. von Magnus has a voice which is too frail, and Scholl and Chance aren't as strong as von Otter. The chorale gets back to the theme of Jesus providing a beam of light to the human soul. Tempos range from Jacob's slow and reverential reading to Gardiner's quick and uplifting version. I think that both approaches are musically enlightening and true to the text. All the versions gave much pleasure and end Part 5 very successfully.

Herreweghe is the best in Part 5. He directs and paces the music very well, and Schlick/Crook/Kooy provide outstanding contributions. With just Part 6 remaining, Herreweghe, Gardiner, and Koopman have been highly competitive; Jacobs remains well below their level.

 

A Bottomless Bucket of Bach – Christmas Oratorio, Part 6
(April 17, 2000)

The opening Coro of Part 6 expresses the faith that believers have in the might and resolve of the Lord to protect them from all enemies and "the talons of the fiend". Herreweghe and Gardiner provide highly joyous and robust interpretations; they sound great, and they fully convey how happy and content believers are in their faith. Koopman gives us a significant element of tension which is musically infectious, and his chorus is the best defined. Jacobs inserts a sense of reflection which I also enjoyed greatly. All four versions gave me equal pleasure.

King Herod and his type are the subject of a recitative for Evangelist and Herod, soprano recitative, and soprano aria. Herod tells the wise men to find Jesus so that Herod can worship him also. But the soprano is on to Herod's real intent; she admonishes him thoroughly alets him and, for good measure, others like him know that they are feeble nothings and no match for Jesus. The soprano part needs a strong and expressive voice - this is a power role for the singer. I thought ahead of time that Roschmann, for Jacobs, would fit the role best and she does. Roschmann easily has the strongest voice, and it's highly expressive and pleasureable. Jacobs provides very good support with a moderate tempo. Lisa Larsson has a nice voice, but Koopman speeds through the aria without providing any meaning to his pace. Nancy Argenta and Barbara Schlick just don't have the chops to sound realistic in their role.

Let's get back to the wise men who got their marching orders from Herod. After a long trek, they find Jesus and are filled with joy. Do they go back to Herod and tell him where Jesus can be found? No way - God tells them in a dream *not* to return to Herod, but to go back to their own country - fade out. The highlight of this segment is a gorgeous choral, which performed excellently, gives me the image of being one of the wise men gazing with wonder and pride at the small child. Gardiner's and Jacob's versions did that for me with outstanding choral work. I can't emphasize enough how perfect Bach's music is for the text; it's the essence of reverence, joy, and love all supplied in that outwardly restrained manner Bach often employs which, under the surface, glows with emotion.

The tenors next take center stage with a long recitative and an aria. These two pieces express how weak the enemy is with Jesus now on Earth. The recitative is a tribute to Jesus, while the aria practically thumbs its nose at the enemy - rather boastful. The recitative is a beautiful one with heavenly oboes. Blochwitz vocalizes very well and Gardiner's oboes are the best. Koopman and Jacobs do well, but Crook/Herreweghe do not realize the beauty of the piece. In the aria, it's Herreweghe and Jacobs who provide a significant degree of tension and darkness which the music needs. Koopman and especially Gardiner present a picture of a day time picnic - not so good. That Gardiner provides this type of reading doesn't surprise me, but I would have expected Koopman to revel in the tension/darkness of the music.

A recitative for the four vocal soloists and a rousing and heart-felt chorale complete the Christmas Oratorio. The last sentence of the text reads, "Death, Devil, sin and hell are entirely diminished, the human race has its place at God's side". That pretty much tells it all - we are in very good shape. All versions provide forward momentum readings with great instrumental support except for Koopman; he takes the expressway to the promised land and encounters a few bumps along the way; he's just too fast and doesn't handle it very well.

I have Gardiner's recording on top, but Herreweghe and Koopman are basically at Gardiner's level. Each of them provides much great music with a few less than sterling moments along the way. Gardiner is probably best for those who want a quick paced reading with great instrumental support, particularly from the brass and winds. Anthony Rolfe Johnson as the Evangelist is outstanding and is Olaf Bar. von Otter is very good and Nancy Argenta has some good moments. I'll remember Herreweghe's version most for a few absolutely magical sections which are transcendent. His most effective soloist is Howard Crook who is consistently excellent. Koopman's main virtue is his quartet of vocal soloists led by Klaus Mertens and Christoph Prégardien.

Although Jacobs provides some great choral singing and the most unusual tempos, his vocal soloists excepting for Dorothea Roshmann do not compare well to the other versions. I expected better of Scholl who did not distinguish himself.

Overall, only the Jacobs set does not get a strong advocacy, but those who would appreciate his male vocalists more than I should find the recording very good. Concerning the vocalists, I was most impressed with Olaf Bar and Klaus Mertens; they consistently provided outstanding singing and many excellent interpretations. But what I will remember most of this survey is those missing oboe notes in Koopman's version of the Part 1 Choral for Soprani and Bass Recitative; it still bewilders me.

I'll probably take quite a few days before starting my survey of recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos. I want to make up some time listening substantially to some other composers. When the survey starts, I'll have 15 versions for comparison, one of them on modern instruments (the token version). Samplings that I've done so far indicate a decided increase in tempos in the more recent period instrument recordings. This trend has met with much regret from many Bach fans; we'll see how well it works musically.

 

Feedback to the Article

Ulvi Yurtsever wrote (April 11, 2000):
[To Donald Satz] Don, have you heard the Tölz Boys' Choir; Collegium Aureum / Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden version of Christmas Oratorio (on Harmonia Mundi)? This used to be available at Berkshire. Even though it uses boy sopranos, it's my favorite (along with Gardiner) among the versions you're reviewing. Just one more example of a little-known artist/group blowing away the competiton.

Donald Satz wrote (April 11, 2000):
(To Ulvi Yurtsever) No, haven't heard it. Sounds like another recording to add to the list. And I'd do just that if I could find it. I keep my list tucked away in the Schwann Opus Reference Guide where it's hard to find - evidently too hard. Actually, I think that I left in on top of some old papers which the City graciously removed from my trash barrel this morning. Now I'll have to buy from memory; I'm already confused.

 

Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248: Details
Recordings: Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001 | Individual Movements
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Systematic Discussions:
Cantata 1 | Cantata 2 | Cantata 3 | Cantata 4 | Cantata 5 | Cantata 6 | Part 7: Summary
Individual Recordings:
BWV 248 - Collegium Aureum | BWV 248 - H. Christophers | BWV 248 - J.E. Gardiner | BWV 248 - N. Harnoncourt | BWV 248 - R. Jacobs | BWV 248 - N. McGegan | BWV 248 - R. Otto | BWV 248 - K. Richter | BWV 248 - H. Rilling | BWV 248 - P. Schreier | BWV 248 - M. Suzuki | BWV 248 - K. Thomas | BWV 248 - J.v. Veldhoven
Articles:
A Bottomless Bucket of Bach - Christmas Oratorio [D. Satz]

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Last update: ýNovember 1, 2010 ý22:16:18