Saint-saëns: Oratorio de Noël; Sacred choral works

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 8

Saint-Saëns’ Christmas Oratorio features some lovely music in a decidedly French-Romantic vein–a couple of nice arias/duets, etc. for soloists, a decently crafted chorus or two, and some affecting instrumental writing for organ, harp, and strings. Unfortunately, the overall tone of the 10-movement work is, to be kind, relentlessly contemplative; to be not so kind–somber, meandering, and almost boringly uneventful, which is very odd given the subject. (And, unforgivable for a work in this genre, it takes forever to get started.) Yes, there are moments of both dramatic exuberance and joyful exclamation–“Glory to God in the highest”, “Why do the heathen rage?”–but these are relatively brief interludes that burst through the meditative atmosphere, then quickly disappear. Even the “Hallelujah” utterances, beautifully scored as they are, must be the most understated in the choral repertoire. Given the dearth of drama either in the music or in the texts (there’s no story being told–rather the work is more an adoring affirmation of the Deity of Christ) it’s a bit of a stretch to call this an oratorio–but that aside, these performers give it a solid effort, distinguished by rich choral sonorities and warm string tone, the only disappointment being the uneven quality of the soloists.

More satisfying than the oratorio are several of the “fillers”–the four short sacred pieces, two written for choir and organ, the others for soloists and organ. Particularly engaging are the Ave verum corpus, scored for four-part women’s voices, a gorgeous little gem that should be heard more often, the O salutaris hostia, a terrific vehicle for soprano, alto, and tenor soloists, and the eight-part Tantum ergo, with its exemplary, close-voiced harmonic style. The sound is unevenly balanced regarding the various combinations of organ, harp, soloists, and choir, but otherwise it’s clear and pleasingly resonant. This is one of those “if you like this sort of thing, buy it” recordings–and if you are so inclined, be assured that it bests my previous reference recording of the work, with the Bach Choir and Orchestra of Mainz (Calig).

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Bach Choir & Orchestra Mainz (Calig)

CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS - Oratorio de Noël; Sacred choral works

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