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International Record Review - (03//2015)
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Challenge Classics

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Reviewer:  Nigel Simeone

Listening to Bach's Christmas Oratorio in the first week of February may not be very seasonal but it doesn't matter when a new recording as revvarding and as thought‑provoking as this one comes along. Sigiswald Kuijken bas been recording Bach cantatas with one singer to a part for Accent, while Challenge Classics has released his performances of the St Matthew and St John Passions and the B minor Mass ‑ with mixed but always stimulating results (I particularly like the two Passions in this series). Now Kuijken has reached the sextet of cantatas that form the Christmas Oratorio and the results are a delight. By using an appropriately scaled instrumental group, the four singers are never overwhelmed and aside from the well‑rehearsed arguments about Bach's likely performing forces (which point to the use of solo voices), there is also the sense of intimacy and tonal coherence that comes from using the same voices for choruses and arias. For anyone who is entirely unpersuaded by this approach, this release is probably not for them ‑ though Kuijken makes such a compelling case for doing it vvith single voices that I'd still encourage all lovers of Bach's music to hear this set. In the 1990s I performed several Bach works (including some of the Christmas Oratorio), employing single voices with students and friends at Nottingham University, and we were thrilled vvith the results. Of course it's not the only way to do this music ‑ my own experience included performing Wachet auf vvith single voices one night and wiÏh a chorus of 80 the next ‑ but the evidence is compelling and the musical gains, particularly in terms of clarity of lines, and of vocal blend and balance, are considerable. To ears accustomed to hearing these works with larger forces, this does mean reimagining Bach's great 'choral' works for a small vocal ensemble, but the results are marvellous when the performance is as convincing as Kuijken's version of the Christmas Oratorio.


Four well‑matched voices, the most natural unhurried pacing (never lacking in vitality), cool but eloquently phrased chorales, some exquisite and stylish ornamentation, and a magnificent instrumental ensemble are among the many reasons to hear this. And ‑ apparently the first time on a periodinstrument recording of the work ‑ holeless natural trumpets have been used. These are the instruments for which Bach wrote his brilliant trumpet parts, without the later addition of vent‑holes that help tuning. The expert team of trumpeters on this set ‑ JeanFrançois Madeuf, Pierre‑Yves Madeuf and Graham Nicholson ‑ produce dazzlingly successful results using these instruments (and these parts were certainly vvritten to dazzle), and the rest of the wind players produce a sweet, woody period‑instrurnent sound that is extremely attractive, especially the various players of oboe, oboe d'amore and oboe da caccia. The trumpets in the last number of the sixth Cantata ‑ a joyous fantasia on a chorale tune more usually associated with the darkest days of Holy Week ‑ add virtuosic brilliance to a performance that is really beautifully directed and sung: with Kuijken the movement ‑ like so many others in this recording ‑ seems to take flight, to dance, without the tempo ever being pushed too hard.


The four vocal soloists are a nicely balanced quartet when singing together, but each voice also has individual character that emerges in the arias and duets. Sunhae Im's bright, clear soprano is always a pleasure to hear, well contrasted with the slightly darker tone of Petra Noskaiova’s mezzo ‑ a regular Kuijken collaborator. Stephan Scherpe is a young tenor with a fine sense of line and mellifluous sound, and Jan Van der Crabben's firm baritone underpins the ensemble. Kuijken generates energy and vitality without forcing the pace: he allows the music to stretch, breathe and relax where appropriate, and thanks to the lucid instrumental and vocal textures there's a kind of airy and genial vitality about the vvhole performance that feels utterly right ‑ I have,been completely unable to resist the charms of this set on repeated hearings.


There have been very few one‑voice‑to‑apart recordings of the Christmas Oratorio. I haven't heard the solo‑voices version by the Musikalische Compagney under Holger Eichhorn on Querstand (VKJK1238) but collectors might want to investigate it, since it uses an all‑male quartet including a solo treble and a countertenor. Kuijken's s'olution with female soprano and mezzo works very well, helped by his excellent choice of singers, who are a more consistently satisfying vocal ensemble than has sometimes been the case on Kuijken's' Accent cantatas series.


What of comparisons? I have to admit to admit to hoarding recordings of the Christmas Oratorio and among those I listen to regularly are performances as different as those by Jochum (Philips, deleted), Harnoncourt's pioneering old‑instrument version (Teldec/Warner), Herreweghe (Virgin), Gardiner (Archiv) and Chailly (Decca). Sifting favourites from these is difficult, but Riccardo Chailly's is a thrilling and sprightly version with modern instruments. Among period‑instrument sets, Philippe Herrevveghe and John Eliot Gardiner are both consistently enjoyable, the former rather more flexible, the latter superbly disciplined and energetic. This new version has a special place, partly because of the different sound of the smaller forces used but also because of the humanity and intimacy of Kuijken's conception. It's a recording to cherish and one that captures the spirit of the work as completely as any I know. The booklet includes complete texts and translations, and the recording is beautifully balanced. Recommended vvith the greatest enthusiasm.  



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