COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Deutsche Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Christmas Oratorio
PERFORMER: Christine Schäfer (soprano), Bernarda Fink (mezzo-soprano), Werner Güra (tenor), Gerald Finley, Christian Gerhaher (bass-baritone); Arnold Schoenberg Choir; Concentus Musicus Wien/
CATALOGUE NO: 88697112252
It’s almost 35 years since Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Vienna Concentus Musicus made their first and until now their only recording of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Then, he entrusted all the soprano solos to an accomplished member of the Vienna Boys’ Choir. In the new, live recording, though, Harnoncourt has reverted to modern tradition by engaging a female soprano and substituting a contralto for the countertenor of the earlier one. In the absence of any documentation I am unable to speak authoritatively on the forces used for choir and orchestra, but they sound larger than in the earlier recording and nowhere more so than in the opening chorus of the first Cantata where the timpani burst upon the ear like giant thunder claps.
The contrasts between the two performances lie mainly in the greater refinement of the period instrumental playing of the Vienna Concentus Musicus and in the more restrained ‘early music’ mannerisms of the newcomer. Harnoncourt and his fine line-up of soloists bring declamatory emphasis to Bach’s music imbuing the work with a feeling of consequence not always to be found in competing versions. Harnoncourt’s closest rival, perhaps, is Ton Koopman whose recording contains expressive singing, and is less artful than many of his performances. My favourite, though, remains that with the Tölz Boys’ Choir directed by its founder Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden. Here the soprano and alto solos are ravishingly sung by boys, bringing us closer to a sound which would have been familiar to Bach himself. In the prolonged absence of this recording, made in 1973, the same year as Harnoncourt’s earlier version, I can confidently place the new one at the top of the league.