BACH Christmas Oratorio. Various/Bach-Collegium Stuttgart/Rilling (Hännsler) – INKPOT

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Edition Bachakadamie Vol.76Christmas Oratorio
BWV 248 Weihnachts-Oratorium

Sibylla Rubens soprano
Ingeborg Danz alto
James Taylor Marcus Ullman tenors
Hanno Müller-Brachmann bass

Gchinger Kantorei Bach-Collegium Stuttgart
directed by Helmuth Rilling
Includes German texts with translations in French, English and Spanish.

HÄNSSLER Classic CD 92.076
3 discs [2h 24:26] mid-price

by Jonathan Yungkans
Before 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.

Now 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.

Moreover, 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 to find.

As 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.

By 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 of Ascension.

All 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….”

Parody 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.”

Along 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.

When 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.

Within 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.

Even 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.”

Of 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.

The 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.”

Danz 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

Bass 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.

Rubens’ 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 lines.

Altogether, 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.

JONATHAN YUNGKANS was thoroughly renewed by this recording.

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