When was the Bach Christmas Oratorio written?
Aassembled at the end of 1734, JS Bach‘s’ Oratorium Tempore Nativitatis Christi’ (Christmas Oratorio) constitutes a six-part Christmas present to the congregations of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas in Leipzig. Time is running out, but Bach had a trump card up his sleeve, as the Nativity to Epiphany cycle plunders pre-existing sources. His congregations may or may not have had the sophistication to recognize it – particularly over the 13-day performance – but Bach intended a unified design.
Given on consecutive days, parts I-III explore the Nativity; Parts V-VI the coming of the Magi. Isolated by the key and the appearance of two horns, Part IV stands out. Revisiting techniques already repeated in the sets of Bach’s Passion, the Christmas Oratorio in a way embodies their joyful photographic negative.
We have named Bach’s Christmas Oratorio one of the best classical Christmas pieces of all time.
What is the best recording of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio?
RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für alte Musik Berlin
Harmonia Mundi HMX 2901630.31
Trying to find the perfect Christmas oratorio is no easy task. True, there may be few absolute turkeys, but playing it safe with performances offering the fewest caveats would be tantamount to bypassing a work whose exuberant and imaginative life force demands daring to match. Anyone familiar with René Jacobs’ recordings of Mozart knows not to expect “security” from himself, and they won’t be surprised to find that he is the only conductor to add lute to the continuo here, opening up enlightening possibilities in recitatives – where he generally approaches Bach’s story with invigorating immediacy. Nothing is taken for granted, no revealing detail is overlooked.
The opening chorus is electrifying, the thundering timpani allowed for additional unscripted bloom on the cover, and the soloists are one with a drama unfolding simultaneously on human and divine levels. Where some performances only tell the story of Christmas, Jacobs lives it. Werner Gura is a compelling narrator with weight as required, Klaus Hager a true bass, capable of majesty without boasting. Certainly, certain tempos raise eyebrows – given the soporific staging of the Sinfonia Part II, it would be happy if the shepherds could stay awake to watch over their flocks. But reservations aside, Jacobs draws you into mystery and wonder, majesty and celebration.
Three more excellent recordings of JS Bach’s Christmas Oratorio
Bach Collegium Japan
CD BRI 941/942
Where an imposing basilica would seem to provide the perfect backdrop for Jacobs’ living tale, a spacious chapel could complement Masaaki Suzuki’s time-consuming and intimate approach – for all that he accesses to intentional jubilation with unerring sharpness. Like her former teacher Ton Koopman, Suzuki places great importance on supreme clarity, but while her quest for ideal purity has at times seemed almost an end in itself, here she unleashes some of the freshest musical creations imaginable – precision. and the alert the reactivity of the choir and the instrumentalists (beautifully recorded) enchants. Soloists, on the other hand, are more problematic. Gerd Türk’s evangelist is pretty reliable, but bass Peter Kooij isat times a bit abrupt, while Yoshikazu Mera’s colorful and unpredictable countertenor won’t appeal to everyone.
Archives 423 2322
For many, the recording of John Eliot Gardiner is probably the benign ghost of Christmases gone by, as familiar and warm as a beloved horseman. Once upon a time, his fast tempos have been the subject of much comment; these days they seem positively mainstream, as does, in a curious way, this performance as a whole – a vintage instrument version for those who think they don’t like vintage instruments. Anxious to distinguish between pomp and pomp, Gardiner’s incisive dramatic instincts provide an exciting “edge” to his Monteverdi Choir (the exhilarating “bounce” of “Ehre sei Gott” is a prime example). And his soloists seduce and reassure at all times – Anthony Rolfe Johnson a very self-effacing “English” evangelist, the honeyed but authoritarian baritone Olaf Bär, the mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter simply radiant.
Warner Classics Das Alte Werk 2564 698 540
Including Harnoncourt’s recording with the Wiener Sängerknaben Boys’ Choir may seem perverse when so many other versions offer more technically secure and less poised performances. But Christmas is about children, and relying on boys’ voices not only for the choir but also for the solos, Harnoncourt offers the closest approximation to the sound that the good citizens of Leipzig would have known in 1734. Among the other boy’s choir recordings available, Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden’s pioneering 1973 version with the Tolzer Knabenchor is only available for download; a 1958 performance of Bach’s Thomanerchor conducted by Kurt Thomas threatens to last until Easter; and the soloists of the Dresden Kreuzchor and the Philharmonie are
all adults. So, Harnoncourt, it must be.
And one to avoid
Karl Richter’s heavy recording of 1965 opens a window into a vanished world of Bach’s performance, and with tenor Fritz Wunderlich in great shape and an impeccably pierced choir and orchestra, it has its attractions. Yet with a galaxy of Rolls-Royce soloists, it becomes a sort of star-studded production number streak amid recitatives whose well-padded presumption suggests a Hollywood biblical B-movie blockbuster.
Top illustration by Steve Rawlings / Beginner