Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with the Thomanerchor and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig

Performed by the Leipzig Thomanerchor and the Gewandhaus Orchestra it
brings together two of the city’s most venerable musical institutions,
under the baton of Gotthold Schwarz – the seventeenth Thomaskantor to have
held that position since Bach’s own tenure from 1723 until his death in
1750. Schwarz was inaugurated as Thomaskantor on 20th August
2016. The sacred music of Bach forms the core of the choir’s repertory, and
each week they are joined in St Thomas’s Church by members of the
Gewandhausorchester for performances of Bach’s cantatas, continuing a
collaboration which began at least as early as 1835 when Felix Mendelssohn,
as Music Director, programmed Bach’s music.


Accentus recording

disc is not the first time that we been treated to Bach from the ‘home
team’. In 2012, Georg Christoph Biller (Kantor from 1992 to 2015) conducted
the same forces (with soloists Martin Petzold (Evangelist), Paul Bernewitz
and Friedrich Praetorius (treble), Ingeborg Danz (alto), Christoph Genz
(tenor), and Panajotis Iconomou (bass)) for the German label,


. But, Schwarz’s account of the Christmas Oratorio is certainly a
compelling one.

In the CD liner booklet, Katharina Rosenkranz raises the question of
‘whether [the Christmas Oratorio] is an oratorio in the real sense
of the word’, since ‘the work consists of six separate cantatas that were
intended for different Sundays and holidays during the Christmas
festivities of the year in which they were composed’. But, though the
cantatas – Bach’s last major contribution to the repertoire of German
Lutheran liturgical music – were first heard in 1734/35 in Leipzig’s two
main churches, St Thomas and St Nicolas, over twelve days, it does not seem
fair to suggest that the work lacks a continuous biblical narrative. Bach
would surely have been familiar with Passion settings the parts of which
were intended or adapted for presentation on separate days over Holy Week
or Lent. And, his title specifies ‘Oratorium’, denoting a tradition of
gospel narration through the voice of an Evangelist and various
interlocutors, such as is represented by his own Passion settings. He
titled each cantata a ‘part’, suggesting that while it might stand on its
own terms it forms part of a larger whole.

Moreover, Rosenkranz asserts that, unlike the Passion narrative, the
‘biblical narrative of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus contains
little dramatic potential’. I’m not sure that Handel would have agreed, not
that Gospel writers were averse to indulging in narrative gestures of a
deliberately dramatic nature. But, I think the point being made is that
these are meditative cantatas. Rosenkranz offers a summary of each cantata
(presented in German, English and French), not just identifying key
narrative and musical features, but also the juxtaposition which is the
‘essence’ of each cantata: lowliness and majesty in the first, man and god
in the third, for example. Whatever the spiritual message, though, for this
listener it is the sheer vibrancy, colour and energy of the singing and
playing here that is most absorbing and exciting.

The opening chorus “Jauchzet, frohlocket” – kick-started by exultant
timpani, sharply etched trumpets flourishes and rejoicing, racing flutes,
oboes and strings – is brilliantly colourful, and the individual
instrumental lines retain their fine definition with the entry of the warm
and heart-stirring choral ensemble. Bach’s music was originally written for
the opening movement of Cantata BWV 214, which begins, “Tˆnet, ihr Pauken!
Erschauet, Trompeten, Klingende Saiten, erf¸llet die Luft!” (Sound, ye
drums now! Resound, ye trumpets! Resonant strings fill the air!) and the
choric instructions are as just as apt and satisfyingly fulfilled here. The
bright tone of the trumpets and robust strike of the timpani are vivid
presences throughout the sequence; horns and oboes add terrific pungency
and punch to the opening chorus of Part IV, “Fallt mit Danken”, which are
balanced by the sumptuousness of the choral ensemble and the litheness of
the vocal lines. But, there are instrumental episodes of touching affection
and stillness too. The theme of the Sinfonia which opens Part II may
originally have embodied the enticements of the disreputable ‘Wollust’ who
tempts Hercules in the secular Cantata BWV 213, but the gentle lilt of
flute and oboe in dialogue with strings is no less effective or enchanting
a lullaby for the infant Jesus, one which Schwarz paces fluently and which
captures the spirit of pastoral joy and ease.

Patrick Grahl has a fairly light tenor, but it is an expressive voice and
the appealing tone engages and consoles the listener. Grahl rises to the
peaks of the Evangelist’s recitatives cleanly and comfortably. Accurate and
nuanced, the sometimes twisting, angular lines are focused and well-tuned,
and the declamation is heightened or quietened as is appropriate.

Markus Sch‰fer sings the tenor arias with greater intensity of colour and
urgency, at times bringing an almost operatic ‘drama’ to the unfolding
action. Sch‰fer demonstrates fine nimbleness in the running lines of “Frohe
Hirten, eilt, ach eilet” in Part II, and the aria is sweetened by the
traverse flute solo which has the purity of an angel’s cry. I particularly
enjoyed “Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben” in Part IV, in which the two solo
violins strive forward in ever-inventive dialogue and Sch‰fer’s energy,
accuracy and focus never flag, creating a compulsive sweep which draws in
the listener. It’s no surprise that towards the end of the aria the double
bass joins in, too, with vigour and heartiness: the aria has a powerfully
communicative ‘human’ quality.

In the many arias for alto, Elvira Bill makes a very strong impression. In
Part 1, the relaxed clarity of the vocal line in “Nun wird mein liebster
Br‰utigam” is beautifully complemented by the reedy fluidity of the oboe
d’amore and the fullness of the low, light-footed continuo – light and
shade, as it were: the aria seems literally to shine with light and grace.
The sweet tone and unaffected sustained notes at the start of “Schlafe,
mein Liebster, geniefle der Ruh” in Part II bear no hint of the
afore-mentioned Wollust’s sinister entreaties: here, Schwarz again shows
good judgement of the tempo and there is both decorous vocal ornamentation
and lovely playing by the oboes d’amore and da caccia, with gentle string
doubling. One of the highlights of the sequence is Part III’s “Schliefle,
mein Herze, dies selige Wunder” in which a deeply expressive violin solo is
complemented by sensitive organ and cello continuo; here, Bill’s plea,
“Enclose, my heart, these blessed miracles fast within your faith!”, is
unmannered and truly affecting, combining wonder, passion and peace. The
text is conveyed with similar expressive impact in the recitative at the
end of Part V, “Wo ist der neugeborne Kˆnig der J¸den?” (How bright, how
clear must your radiance be, Beloved Jesus!), which shines with joy.

Bass Klaus H‰ger puts much feeling into the words and his recitatives are
powerful. I found H‰ger a little under-powered and lacking in brightness of
tone in comparison to the trumpet solo in “Grofler Herr, o starker Kˆnig” in
Part I, but his recitative at the start of Part IV is arresting: “Immanuel,
o s¸fles Wort!” (Emmanuel, O sweet word!). And, in Part V the long, and
sometimes quite high, lines of the bass aria, “Erleucht auch meine finistre
Sinnen”, allow the lightness and lyricism of his bass to make their mark,
aided by a fine obbligato oboe solo. The alternating groupings and colours
of the duet for bass and soprano in Part III, “Herr, dein Mitleid, dein
Erbarmen”, are well-crafted by Schwarz, with the organ switching between
roles – first a voice in the counterpoint, then providing foundation steps
– and soprano Dorothee Mields exhibiting a purity and cleanness of tone to
complement H‰ger’s more grainy bass.

Mields provides another of the recording’s highlights, “Flˆflt, mein
Heiland, flˆflt dein Namen” in Part IV, where her silky soprano is
exquisitely embroidered by the echoes of the solo oboe and chorister
Clemens Sommerfeld, and Thomasorganist Ullrich Bˆhme makes a very
expressive contribution. The light staccato of the continuo bass in Part
VI’s “Nur ein Wink von seinen H‰nden” is a perfect foundation for the airy
syncopated twists and turns above of soprano, oboe d’amore and violin, as
Mields asserts God’s unassailable power. The questions and exclamations of
the soprano, alto and tenor soloists, with violin obbligato, in the Part V
trio, “Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen?”, are urgent and dramatic. This
is superb music-making: listening, I found myself smiling and reflecting
that Bach doesn’t come much better than this.

The chorales are solid and warm, with the gutsy boys’ voices resplendent at
the top: Schwarz, and the Accentus engineers, achieve a good balance
between the choir, the doubling instruments and the organ. The majesty of
“Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein”, which closes Part 1, as the choir
alternates with stirring trumpets and timpani, conveys certainty and
conviction. “Brich an, o schˆnes Morgenlicht” in Part II is brisk and
forthright, but Schwarz effects a well-modulated slowing and diminution at
the close. The boys’ voices often add vigour to the choruses as in
“Herrscher des Himmels, erhˆre das Lallen” in Part III where, alongside
trumpets, timpani and bass, the trebles’ energised lines strive upwards,
surging with an optimism which blossoms in the contrapuntal dynamism of
“Lasset uns nun gehen gen Bethlehem und die Geschichte”.

Schwarz’s inclination is to keep the chorales moving; fermatas are observed
with a light touch and the resulting momentum is often most effective, as
in “Dein Glanz all Finsternis verzehrt” in Part V, where the repetition of
the first vocal phrase runs on into the final phrase, thereby observing the
elision in the text and establishing the certainty of salvation: ‘Doch,
sobald dein Gnadenstrahl/ In denselben nur wird blinken, Wird es voller
Sonnen d¸nken.’ (Yet, as soon as the rays of your mercy/ Only gleam within
there/ It will seem filled with sunlight.)

‘Wir singen dir in deinem Heer/ aus aller Kraft, Lob, Preis und Ehr’

(We sing to you in your host with all our might: “Praise,
honour and glory”) proclaims the chorale which closes Part II. And, sing
and play with all their might, and insight, the Thomanerchor and Gewandhaus
Orchestra certainly do. This recording has been a welcome festive companion
for this listener, but it will bring much pleasure at any time of the year.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Accentus ACC 30469
product_title=J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio BWV 248
product_by=Thomanerchor Leipzig, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Gotthold Schwarz (conductor), Dorothee Mields (soprano), Elvira Bill (alto), Patrick Grahl (tenor, Evangelist), Markus Sch‰fer (tenor), Klaus H‰ger (bass)
product_id=Accentus ACC 30469 [CD]