The Well-Trebled Christmas Oratorio

Review by: Jens F. Laurson


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

If you like trebles in Bach—and specifically in the Christmas Oratorio—why not opt for those that Bach, a few generations back, worked with himself? Certainly, this latest production has much going for it, whether on CD, DVD, or Blu-ray. (I worked with the DVD.) The new Thomaskantor Gotthold Schwarz, visibly enjoying every indefatigable minute, leads his boys and the Leipzig Gewandhaus in a rousing, big-boned, but lively performance. On the conventional end it is solid and safe and booming and performed on modern instruments. On the HIP end, it is full of spiritedness and lively musical enunciation. It’s not unlike Riccardo Chailly’s hybrid or “third-way” Bach, but with fewer interpretive eccentricities and the large Thomaner Boys Choir—replete with treble-solos from a shaggy-haired cherub.

The soloists, except for the ever-wonderful soprano Dorothee Mields and perhaps veteran tenor Markus Schäfer, don’t turn heads on paper. As it turns out, it’s two relative and young no-names among the cast, both of whom we will hear much, much more in the next decades, that are at least co-equal attractions. Elvira Bill is simply a magnificent alto: a characterful and expressive voice with an easy top, a clear ring to it, and a clever, appealing treatment of the text and switched-up repeats. And Evangelist Patrick Grahl seems to have jumped straight out of the 1970s; a young man but with a prematurely wise, natural voice, seasoned in the best sense. There’s a Peter Schreier-esque air to him, which can’t be a bad thing, and the earnest, artless take on Bach betrays a former Thomaner treble. Without standing out, bass Klaus Häger does his part in keeping the soloist contributions on a very satisfying, high level.

The MDR video production of this live concert is very well made: a good mix of close-ups, wide shots, blends of orchestra, soloists, choir, and a few scenic shots of the packed Thomaskirche. Even the booklet is lavish with essays and texts provided. In fact, the only thing I don’t like about the production is that the DVD/Blu-ray menu and even the pre-concert cast-credits are accompanied by music. Excerpts from the Christmas Oratorio, naturally, but still, I don’t need to involuntarily hear bleeding chunks before hearing the real thing in just a second. People having chosen to sit down to watch this work will be able to withstand a few seconds of silence! (I’m also not big on applause in concerts held in churches, but that’s on the Leipzigers and in any case inevitable these days.)

There are four-and-a-half recordings of the Christmas Oratorio with the Leipzig Thomas Choir. It starts with Günther Ramin in 1955 (only parts 1-3; the only one without the Gewandhaus Orchestra). The next is from 1958 with Kurt Thomas. It’s a woolly recording, slow and with off-trumpets and little to recommend it, except for historic interest and a young Fischer-Dieskau. Then, after a 40-year gap, comes the 1998 Philips recording under Georg Christoph Biller with a prime 1990s cast consisting of Christophe Prégardien, Klaus Mertens, Barbara Schlick, and Yvonne Naef. A decade later, in 2009, we have Biller again, live, now with a slightly less illustrious lineup but an even more agile choir and a Gewandhaus Orchestra that has absorbed more HIP-lessons in the meantime. But this latest recording tops all of those as the new Thomaner—and probably even boys choir—reference version of the Christmas Oratorio.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Third Way: Chailly (Decca); This one, HIP Mayhem: Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi); Veldhoven (Challenge Classics), Heart-warming olden goldie: Richter II (Archiv); Rilling (Hänssler)

  • BACH, J.S.:
    Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 (Parts I-VI)
  • Dorothee Mields (soprano); Elvira Bill (alto); Patrick Grahl, Markus Schäfer (tenor); Klaus Häger (bass)
  • Thomaner Chorus Leipzig, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Gotthold Schwarz

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