JS Bach: Christmas Oratorio

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LABELS: Challenge Classics
WORKS: Christmas Oratorio
PERFORMER: Sunhae Im (soprano), Petra Noskaiová (alto), Stephan Scherpe (tenor), Jan van der Crabben (bass); La Petite Bande/Sigiswald Kuijken
CATALOGUE NO: CC 72394 (hybrid CD/SACD)


Recordings of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio range from Karl Richter’s monumental account with the Munich Bach Choir some half century ago, through Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s pioneering period performance from 1973, to Masaaki Suzuki’s luminous reading with the Bach Collegium Japan. Listeners may be surprised by the spare, transparent textures of this new version, in which Sigiswald Kuijken prefers one voice to a part, and a small-scale instrumental ensemble which he leads from the violin.

An exquisite lightness pervades: rhythms lilt and dance, intricate passagework sounds fleet and agile, and the text is cleanly articulated even within complex contrapuntal textures. The fresh, candid voices of the four soloists are all finely balanced within the ensemble, the singing at times instrumental in quality and a far cry from the quasi-operatic displays of some early recordings. Kuijken highlights the subtly variegated colours of his instrumental ensemble, with serene oboes d’amore and the mellower oboes da caccia painting the pastoral scene of Christ’s Nativity, while natural horns and trumpets add a thrillingly raw sound. The whole is sensitively balanced in a warm yet detailed recording.

There may be more opulent and festive accounts of the Christmas Oratorio, but this delicately expressive and intimate performance captures the tender essence of the Christmas story.


Kate Bolton