WORKS: Christmas Oratorio
PERFORMER: Lisa Larsson (soprano), Elisabeth von Magnus (alto), Christoph Prégardien (tenor), Klaus Mertens (bass)Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir/Ton Koopman
CATALOGUE NO: 0630-14635-2
Bach wrote these six cantatas, a continuous narrative of the nativity, for performance in Leipzig from Christmas to Epiphany 1734-5. No opening could be more dramatic: solo timpani answered by two flutes, then oboes, and a surge of martial trumpets through a cascade of strings before the choral shout ‘Rejoice, exult!’. Yet, astonishingly, much of this inspired music was borrowed: those timpani reflect the opening of a secular cantata, ‘Resound, ye drums!’.
The Christmas story is told in recitative by the Evangelist, Prégardien, so vividly expressive that he virtually precludes the need for translation. Lutheran chorales, a second textual layer, are fresh and free of sanctimonious weight.
Bach selects the most vivid colours for the newly written text of choruses and arias, an amazing kaleidoscope of sound. Koopman’s choir never sacrifices verve to its technical polish and his instrumental forces are outstanding: the trumpet of ‘Grosser Herr’ delightfully understated, reflecting the unimportance of earthly pomp; immaculate horns; intonation spot on from buzzing period oboes. Tempi are alert, though I’d sometimes have preferred more dramatic urgency from one movement to the next.
Prégardien doubles as lyrical commentator as well as narrator. Larsson revels in Bach’s wit – the disguised metre of ‘Nur ein Wink’, the unpredictable oboe/soprano echoes of ‘Flösst mein Heiland’. Mertens’s fluent duetting with violins is breathtaking while von Magnus, cast in effect if not in name as the Virgin Mary, contrasts with a more vibrant tone.
At home, I traditionally listen to these Cantatas on their respective days throughout Christmas. After Gardiner’s dramatic vision (Archiv) and Christophers’s polish (Collins), this year I’ll turn to Koopman’s sincerity, enthusiasm and energy.