Notes and Editorial Reviews
Bach's Christmas Oratorio was compiled for the Christmas church festival at Leipzig for the season of 1734-5. The six cantatas which comprise the oratorio were designed for Christmas Day and the two following days, the Feast of the Circumsion, the Sunday after New Year and the Feast of the Epiphany. The text, by an unidentified author, but very possibly Picander, follows the biblical narrative outline of the appointed readings for the relevant days; but, although this is so and although the six works were performed independently of one another, Bach, nevertheless, aimed at and achieved a continuity which allows us to consider the oratorio as a whole. The means by which he does so are both musical and structural, but above all, perhaps, it is the presence of a narrator, the Evangelist, who gives an account of the story, which provides the strongest link between the components. It is this feature, furthermore, which distinguishes the work from Bach's standard church cantata content, giving it oratorio status. As we know, Bach's self-borrowing in the Christmas Oratorio is extensive, and two secular cantatas in particular, Nos. 213 and 214, provided him with many choruses and arias. Whilst economy of effort doubtless played a part in this, the propriety of the 'parodies' and the high quality of the music itself encourage us to wonder if Bach had this greater destiny in mind at the time of original composition. Examination of primary and secondary texts shows Bach as a consummate master of this widely used baroque practice and at no time does he fail either to meet the conditions of acceptable declamation or to satisfy the requirements of opposite musical-textual imagery.
John Eliot Gardiner is no stranger to this particular type of Bach composition. He has been performing the church cantatas for years and feels a special affection for them. Not surprisingly, therefore, there is a fluency throughout his new recording of the Christmas Oratorio which is both reassuring and, for most of the time, satisfying too. He has a splendid team of soloists, with the tenor Anthon y Rolfe Johnson as the Evangelist. His performance is communicative—in other words he sounds not only as if he is telling a story but also that it matters to him that we understand it; sometimes the voice itself sounds a little husky as, for instance, in the recitative, ''Als sie nun den Konig'' (Part 6), but this is a small matter unlikely to bother listeners overmuch. Olaf Bar makes a wily Herod (Part 6), with declamation full of subtle innuendo; and he gives a fine account of the bass arias throughout. Nancy Argenta and Anne Sofie von Otter have a fresh, lively approach to the music and their performances are articulate and well focused. The tenor Hans Peter Blochwitz is also impressive—I have been enjoying his contribution to a Telemann St Matthew Passion, recently recorded in Germany but not so far issued in the UK. Choral singing is almost invariably a strong feature of Gardiner's performances and that is markedly the case here. The opening chorus of Part 1 is crisp, incisive and declamatory yet not over-emphatic. It is Harnoncourt's laboured, over-insistent strong beats which spoil for me the same movement in his recording of the Christmas Oratorio, recently issued on CD by Teldec. The Monteverdi Choir are characteristically alert and warm-blooded and I particularly enjoyed their singing of the chorales. The orchestral and obbligato playing reaches a very high standard with oboes and flute deserving of special mention; the arioso-chorale ''Er ist auf Erden kommen arm'' (Part 1), ''Schlafe, mein Liebster'' (Part 2) and the tenor aria ''Frohe Hirten'' (Part 2) are just three of many such examples. the two-violin partnership in the tenor aria ''Ich will nur dir Ehren leben'' (Part 4) is also notably successful. I enjoyed too the frequent occasions on which Gardiner allows us to hear the continuo line when the figures call for a degree of highlighting.
The overall standard of performance in this new recording, together with Gardiner's own affectionate view of the work, make me place the issue in an uppermost position amongst recordings presently available. Rhythmically, he sounds more relaxed than I have sometimes found in past performances, and there is an effective instance of this in the soprano aria, ''Nur ein Wink von seinen Handen'' (Part 6). If you insist on a version with modern instruments then that directed by Michel Corboz on Erato is probably the one to go for. He has a fine group of soloists, including Barbara Schlick and Kurt Equiluz. If, on the other hand, you are hidebound by 'authenticity', then Harnoncourt's account with a boys' choir and an all-male cast, which is what Bach himself would certainly have had, might suit you better. But if you like the idea of first-rate singing and playing, irrespective of what Bach had at his disposal, and an interpretation which shows a lively awareness of stylistic issues without making a meal of them, then Gardiner's reading is likely to give you a great deal of pleasure. A copious booklet gives full text in four languages and, unlike Harnoncourt's recording, the work is contained within two CDs rather than three. The recorded sound is clear, though I confess I do not greatly care for it. Sometimes there is a slight but unwelcome buzz around certain of the solo voices. Apart from that, a considerable achievement.
-- Nicholas Anderson, Gramophone [12/1987]