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The best recordings of JS Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Is there anything more uplifting than the exultant ‘Jauchzet, frohlocket!’ that opens Bach’s great festive choral work, his Christmas Oratorio? Paul Riley finds the best recordings to bring you good cheer

Bach's Christmas Oratorio
Published: December 2, 2021 at 2:18 pm

When was Bach's Christmas Oratorio written?

Assembled in late 1734, JS Bach’s ‘Oratorium Tempore Nativitatis Christi’ (Christmas Oratorio) constitutes a six-part Christmas present to the congregations of St Thomas’s and St Nicholas’s in Leipzig. Time was of the essence, but Bach had an ace up his sleeve, for the Nativity-to-Epiphany cycle plunders pre-existing sources. His congregations may or may not have had the sophistication to recognise it – especially over 13 days of performance – but Bach intended a unified conception.

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Given on consecutive days, Parts I-III explore the Nativity; Parts V-VI the coming of the Wise Men. Isolated by key and the appearance of two horns, Part IV stands apart. Revisiting techniques already rehearsed in Bach’s Passion settings, in a sense the Christmas Oratorio embodies their joyous photographic negative.

We named Bach's Christmas Oratorio one of the best pieces of Christmas classical music ever

What is the best recording of Bach's Christmas Oratorio?

René Jacobs

RIAS Kammerchor, Akademie für alte Musik Berlin

Harmonia Mundi HMX 2901630.31

Trying to find the ideal Christmas Oratorio is no easy matter. True, there may be few utter turkeys, but to play safe with performances offering the fewest caveats would be to short-change a work whose exuberant, imaginative life-force demands daring to match. Anyone familiar with René Jacobs’s recordings of Mozart knows not to expect ‘safety’ where he is concerned, and they won’t be surprised to find that he is the only conductor to add lute to the continuo here, opening up illuminating possibilities in the recitatives – where he typically sets about Bach’s narrative with invigorating immediacy. Nothing is taken for granted, no telling detail overlooked.

The opening chorus is electrifying, the thunderous timpani allowed an unscripted extra flourish at the reprise, and the soloists are at one with a drama unfolded simultaneously at levels human and divine. Where some performances merely relate the Christmas story, Jacobs lives it. Werner Gura is a compelling narrator with heft as required, Klaus Hager a true bass, capable of majesty without bluster. True, some tempos raise eyebrows – given the soporific scene-setting of the Part II Sinfonia, it would be lucky if the shepherds were able to stay awake to watch over their flocks. But reservations aside, Jacobs draws you into the mystery and wonder, the majesty and celebration.

Three other great recordings of JS Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Masaaki Suzuki

Bach Collegium Japan

BIS CD 941/942

Where an imposing basilica would appear to offer the ideal backdrop to Jacobs’s vivid account, a spacious chapel might complement Masaaki Suzuki’s fastidious, intimate approach – for all that he accesses purposeful jubilation with unerring sharpness. Like his one-time teacher Ton Koopman, Suzuki sets great store by supreme clarity, but whereas his pursuit of an ideal purity has sometimes seemed almost an end in itself, here it unleashes some of the freshest music-making imaginable – the precision and alert responsiveness of choir and instrumentalists (beautifully recorded) enchant. The soloists, however, are more problematic. Gerd Türk’s Evangelist is dependable enough, but bass Peter Kooij is sometimes a little brusque, while Yoshikazu Mera’s colouristically unpredictable countertenor won’t appeal to all tastes.

John Eliot Gardiner

Monteverdi Choir

Archiv 423 2322

For many, John Eliot Gardiner’s recording is probably the benign ghost of Christmases past, as familiar and warming as a much-loved jumper. Once upon a time, his brisk tempos were the subject of much comment; nowadays they seem positively mainstream, as does, in a curious way, this performance as a whole – a period instrument version for people who think they don’t like period instruments. Careful to distinguish between pomp and pomposity, Gardiner’s incisive dramatic instincts coax a thrilling ‘edge’ from his Monteverdi Choir (the exhilarating ‘bounce’ of ‘Ehre sei Gott’ a prime example). And his soloists seduce and reassure at every turn – Anthony Rolfe Johnson a very ‘English’ self-effacing Evangelist, baritone Olaf Bär honeyed yet authoritative, mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter simply radiant.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Wiener Sängerknaben

Warner Classics Das Alte Werk 2564 698 540

To include Harnoncourt’s recording with the Wiener Sängerknaben Boys’ Choir might seem perverse when so many other versions offer more technically secure and less sedately paced performances. But Christmas is about children, and in relying on boys’ voices not only for the choir but for the solos too, Harnoncourt offers the closest approximation to the sound the good citizens of Leipzig would have experienced in 1734. Of the other boy choir recordings available, Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden’s trail-blazing 1973 version with the Tolzer Knabenchor is only available as a download; a 1958 performance from Bach’s Thomanerchor under Kurt Thomas threatens to last until Easter; and the Dresden Kreuzchor and Philharmonie’s soloists are
all adult. So, Harnoncourt it has to be.

And one to avoid

Karl Richter’s weighty 1965 recording opens a window onto a vanished world of Bach performance, and with tenor Fritz Wunderlich on top form and an impeccably drilled chorus and orchestra, it does have its attractions. Yet with a galaxy of Rolls-Royce soloists, it becomes something of a sequence of starry production numbers set amid recitatives whose well-upholstered portentousness suggests a Hollywood biblical B-movie blockbuster.

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Top illustration by Steve Rawlings/Debutart

Authors

Paul RileyJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

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