A Collaborative Classic Christmas Oratorio

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 10

If you’re a pushover for elegant packaging, you might as well skip the review and just order this new Christmas Oratorio without delay. The deep red velour-covered box with gold lettering (front and back!) cries out, “Hold me, hold me!”, and when you see the loving care (and expense) that went into producing the gorgeous interior fold-out CD package and book (and I do mean book), you know you’ve got something special in your hands. And fortunately, this is one of those occasions where beauty and artistry are reflected not only on the surface but right through to the core. This is a marvelous performance of Bach’s six-cantata cycle that offers ravishing choral singing, sharply detailed orchestral playing, and (mostly) superior contributions from the four solo vocalists, all presented in state-of-the-art sound.

A collaboration between Channel Classics, the Netherlands Bach Society, and the Museum Catharijneconvent of Utrecht, this production features not only Bach’s music, but also comes with a beautifully printed hard-cover book that includes not only liner notes and texts but also dozens of pages of full-color reproductions of art from the museum–an institution established in 1979 as a “national museum for Christian art and culture.” The book alone is fascinating and absorbing enough, but Jos van Veldhoven’s rendition of this monumental musical masterpiece will give every fan of Bach’s sacred music reason to investigate this set, which stands among the finest in the catalog.

As mentioned the choral performances are first rate–vibrant, exciting, and involved, with crisp, clear articulation and bright yet full-bodied tone. Just listen to the opening to Part 5, “Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen”, one of Bach’s most irresistible, toe-tapping creations, and you’ll be impressed with the precision, the energy, and the cohesive expression demonstrated by both chorus and orchestra–attributes that apply to the entire recording.

Likewise the soloists are completely at home in their arias and recitatives and give performances that are very easy on the ear as well as being true to Bach’s (and his librettist’s) conception. That is, except for soprano Johannette Zomer, whose disturbingly inconsistent technique–controlled and compelling one moment (the soprano/bass aria “Herr, dein Mitleid”) and harsh and unsubtle the next (“Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen”)–ruffles the otherwise perfectly sculpted lines and warmly complementary colors obtained by Veldhoven and his virtuoso forces. Tenor Gerd Türk is a joy to hear–notably in his recit and aria in Part VI–and alto Annette Markert shines in the famous arias “Schlafe, mein Liebster” (Part II) and “Schließe, mein Herze” (Part III). As usual bass Peter Harvey is a uniformly solid, confident, reassuring presence.

One important irritation needs to be mentioned: as beautiful as it is, the book containing the liner notes offers no quick and easy guide to track numbers and performing information. It’s a frustrating task to locate the text for a given section of the work–not only are the texts interspersed with pages and pages of art reproductions, but inexplicably, no track numbers are listed in the nearly 200-page book, and it’s an unnecessary chore to find a simple listing of the performers. That said, there’s little else here to criticize: Channel Classics and its partners have put together a potential “classic”, one that deserves not only to be held, but also to be heard. [9/27/2003]

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Collegium Vocale/Herreweghe (Virgin)

J.S. BACH - Christmas Oratorio BWV 248

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