An Enduring Christmas Oratorio From Mainz

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 8

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio has been treated very well on disc. In our own archives we list several first-rate choices, including sets from Harmonia Mundi (Jacobs), Hänssler (Rilling), and Channel Classics (Veldhoven). If you don’t own one of those, or happen to be looking for another one that satisfies all the important criteria for an enduring performance that will hold up to indefinite, repeated listening, you should not hesitate to add this new recording to your collection.

You may not be familiar with the Mainz Bach Choir and Mainz Bach Orchestra, nor with the four soloists featured here–but you will not forget them after listening to their expert, captivating performances, facilitated by Ralf Otto’s dynamic conducting–enhanced by crisp articulation, invigorating tempos, and attention to important instrumental colors and effects–from timpani to brass to oboe d’amore and lute–all of which successfully captures the overall celebratory nature of the work.

If there’s a weakness, it’s in a few of the more reflective sections. For instance, Otto doesn’t help the mood of what’s supposed to be a lullaby in the famous alto aria from Part II, Schlafe, mein Liebster (Sleep, my dearest)–a masterful parody by Bach, reworked from an earlier secular cantata; the conductor’s jaunty, heavy-footed gait would do a sleeping (or supposed-to-be-sleeping) infant no favors. Yet alto Katharina Magiera sings as soothingly–and with as lovely a tone–as one could ask. And–praise be–all of the soloists here are excellent, ideal Bach singers and interpreters–you are happy to listen to these voices! Should that not be obvious? Can I tell you how many times I’ve listened to performances of works such as this and said, “My god, how did [that particular soloist] get that gig?”

Tenor/Evangelist Georg Poplutz is worthy of special mention for his tastefully dramatic recits and impressive command of ornamentation in his Part II aria Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet (Joyful shepherds, hasten, O hasten). Similarly, soprano Julia Kleiter and bass Thomas Bauer are thrilling in their Part III duet Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen (Lord, thy pity and compassion…). As for the chorus–it is for me the joy of the entire production. From the opening Jauchzet, frohlocket to Part V’s opening Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen, to the oratorio’s closing Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen, this ensemble shows its world-class credentials. And don’t forget the orchestra, whose vibrant, scintillating accompaniment makes the whole performance “sing” and “dance”.

You won’t hear Bach playing any more exciting or more alive than in this orchestra’s rendition of the final chorus–that brass! those winds! so clear and bright and joyous. The sound, from Mainz, Germany’s Christuskirche, has a fine forward crispness and clarity, yet the background is not as well defined. So while we hear the choir and more prominent orchestral instruments with ideal, natural presence, the acoustic inhibits what we can only imagine as a full flowering of the combined sound–a condition characteristic of most large church environments–yet one that I assure you will not inhibit your enjoyment of these exceptional performances. Don’t overlook this. Strongly recommended.

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Recording Details:

  • BACH, J.S.:
    Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachtsoratorium) BWV 248
  • Georg Poplutz (tenor/Evangelist); Julia Kleiter (soprano); Katharina Magiera (alto); Thomas E. Bauer (bass)
  • Bachchor Mainz, Bachorchester Mainz, Ralf Otto

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