Notes and Editorial Reviews
The listener at once feels able to absorb the textures, the meaning and the profundity of the whole, without being startled constantly by surprising mannerisms, by indigestible intonation, by exaggerated tempi and by the distraction of minutiae. Schneidt seems to impart a serenity which can be felt throughout the work.
In the May issue I gave a warm welcome to a recording of Bach's St John Passion (DG Archiv Production 2710 027) in a performance with the Regensburger Domspatzen and the Collegium St Emmeram conducted by HannsMartin Schneidt. The same groups with some of the same soloists have now recorded a Christmas Oratorio in the church of St Emnaeram at Regensburg thereby entering a field where several highly
competitive versions of the work already exist. Bach's Christmas Oratorio was composed for the Christmas Festival services in Leipzig, in 1734. The six days on which the six separate cantatas which comprise the Oratorio were sung fell between Christmas Day itself and Epiphany so performances spread over into the New Year. The sections describe the story of the Nativity, the visit of the shepherds and of the three wise men, and the christening of the infant Jesus. In general these episodes in the birth of Christ were designed to complement or illustrate the appointed Gospel of the day, though there are exceptions. The words themselves, very possibly put together by Picander, are based on the Lutheran Bible text and are drawn from the Gospels of St Luke and St Matthew. The music is partly original and partly parody, the parody sources being primarily two secular cantatas dating from a year or so earlier. Bach's own score of the Christmas Oratorio has survived, though it doesn't contain his signature. Each section of the work would have been heard alternately at the two chief churches in Leipzig, St Thomas's and St. Nicholas's.
In this new performance directed by Schneidt the treble and alto solos are sung by boys, a more-or-less baroque band is employed, and the pitch is half a tone lower than present-day concert pitch. So it is relevant only to compare this set with the two others already available which adopt a similar procedure, that directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt on Telefunken who opts for a male alto rather than a boy alto, and another by Schmidt-Gaden on Harmonia Mundi. All three performances are of a superior order and, whilst that by Harnoncourt may possibly cause the greatest irritation, mainly on account of his surely excessive emphasis of strong beats, his Vienna Concentus Musicus is undoubtedly the finest of the three ensembles. In this respect, I find the new recording the weakest of them. There is a lack of finesse and a certain unpredictability amongst the strings which I commented upon briefly when dealing with the St John Passion. Here it sounds much the same: some notes are played with difficulty whilst others on occasion seem not to be there at all. It is perhaps all the more noticeable in that it is set against some really splendid woodwind playing and a first-class continuo group. The horns are good too, though I wasn't able to muster much enthusiasm for either the sound or the phrasing adopted by the trumpet. Having said that, I have little to add but praise for the singing, choir and soloists alike, and for the sensitive, relaxed and sincere approach to the music by Schneidt himself, clearly an immensely able and unpretentious Bach interpreter. His direction is so unsensational, so devoid of extra-musical affectation, that one is in danger of losing concentration: what I'm trying to express is that Bach's music is in such safe hands that a listener at once feels able to absorb the textures, the meaning and the profundity of the whole, without being startled constantly by surprising mannerisms, by indigestible intonation, by exaggerated tempi and by the distraction of minutiae.
I don't wish to give the impression that Schneidt's direction is in any way lifeless for it certainly is not, but he seems to impart a serenity which can be felt throughout the work and, in this, he is aided substantially by his soloists. Outstanding among these is the tenor Heiner Hopfner, who sang the role of Evangelist in the recent St John Passion. He approaches the music through the words rather than the other way about, and by so doing discovers for himself and uncovers for us a hidden poetry inherent in the recitative. He does not, perhaps, encunciate his phrases with the sheer authority and conviction with which Helmut Krebs endows Bach's recitative but he comes closer to it than any other tenor that I have heard. Both the solo boy treble and alto, the latter in particular, sing musically and the bass, Nikolaus Hillebrand, is also good though occasionally a little unsteady.
It is easy for me to arrive at a favourable verdict concerning this performance since Schneidt at all times allows Bach's music to unfold, expand, and to speak for itself and this, in my ears, is an enriching and a rewarding experience. To choose one version over and above the other two is not possible, though. Those who already possess either the Harnoncourt recording or the Schmidt-Gaden one should not necessarily feel themselves unduly deprived if they forgo this one. Anyone seeking an authentic version of the Christmas Oratorio, by which I mean one that aims towards a performing style which tries to serve best the interests of the music, will not be disappointed with the new entry. I hesitate to use the word 'devotional' since such things are currently unfashionable, even off-putting but, after all, it was such considerations which prompted Bach to write much of his greatest music and it is the spirit of that music which is so naturally and effortlessly captured here.
My pressings were faultless, the acoustic above average in propriety and acceptability, and included with the set is a short but excellent article by a leading Bach scholar of today, Christoph Wolff. Strongly recommended!
-- Nicholas Anderson, Gramophone [10/1979, reviewing the original LP release]
Works on This Recording
Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Frank Sahesch-Pur (Soprano),
Hubertus Baumann (Soprano),
Michael Hoffmann (Alto),
Sebastian Kelber (Flute),
Helmut Hucke (Oboe d'amore),
Gerd Kaufmann (Organ),
Helmut Hucke (Oboe),
Andreas Mirschel (Oboe d'amore),
Andreas Mirschel (Oboe),
Hans Georg Renner (Oboe da caccia),
Heiner Hopfner (Tenor),
István Krasznai (Violin),
Spiros Rantos (Violin),
Edward H. Tarr (Trumpet),
Nikolaus Hillebrand (Bass),
Hermann Baumann (French Horn),
Christian Lange (Oboe da caccia),
Gerhard Braun (Flute),
Klaus Storck (Cello),
Albert Koster (French Horn),
Walter Stiftner (Bassoon),
Josef Ulsamer (Violin)
Regensburg Cathedral Choir,
Collegium St. Emmeram
Written: 1734-1735; Leipzig, Germany
Venue: St. Emmeram Church, Regensburg, Germany
Length: 163 Minutes 15 Secs.
Notes: St. Emmeram Church, Regensburg, Germany (06/1977 - 07/1977)
Composition written: Leipzig, Germany (1734 - 1735).
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