Bach's Christmas Oratorio – which recording is best?

Jonathan Freeman-Attwood
Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Jonathan Freeman-Attwood listens to 65 years’ worth of recordings

If the Mass in B minor is a compilation on the loftiest conceptual level – honed and crafted as the zenith of Bach’s creative life – then the Christmas Oratorio stands as a compilation of a quite different kind, a practical harvesting of six specific cantatas to be performed on the feast days of Christmas 1734 and the New Year. This substantial festival work, like the Mass, draws liberally on pieces composed for previous occasions, Bach typically recycling old material with freshness and vibrancy to suit the new context. One such example is the great cradle aria, ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’, where composer and librettist (probably Bach’s prime collaborator, Picander) produce an affectionate and telling makeover sourced from an older secular cantata (BWV213) – the tempting wiles of the allegorical ‘Pleasure’ luring Hercules towards a rather different concept of sleep, here becoming a vision of haloed slumber fit for the kingly child.

Oratorio in the dramatic Handelian vein also encourages us to view this work on its own terms. Whereas the shorter Easter and Ascension Oratorios are for specific occasions, this work suggests closer links to the Lutheran historia or Passion; we can observe several similarities to the St John and St Matthew Passions, such as the binding role of the Evangelist, the selective and common thread of topical chorales and the prominence of biblical gospel text.

How best can the performer pace the narrative of the complete Oratorio in a story which lacks the urgency and action propelled by protagonists – the likes of Jesus, Peter, Pilate and the crowd in the Passions – while retaining the discrete contemplative world of each of the six ‘tableaux’ or cantatas? The most successful interpreters are those who identify how Bach links each cantata or ‘scene’ through the Evangelist’s quietly influential role: often he is quite directorial – exercising not merely reportage but guiding us personally through the events of Christ’s birth to the Epiphany. Appreciating the Evangelist’s kaleidoscopic role allows Bach’s extraordinarily coherent treatment of chorus, recitative and aria, arioso and chorale to be further illuminated.

Yuletide Yore

From 1950 – the date of the first complete commercial recording – the release of Christmas Oratorios has been remarkably steady. Older versions often seem undisciplined and texturally aleatoric by today’s standards. If selected recordings of the St Matthew Passion from this period are more durable for their insightful dramatic and poetic judgement, fewer revelations can be found in post-war Oratorios. One might long for perspicacious readings from the 1950s and 1960s by the likes of Hans Grischkat, Karl Ristenpart, Ferdinand Grossmann, Fritz Lehmann, Kurt Thomas and Karl Richter – some of which are available – but few constitute much more than a repository of exceptional individual movements.

Such is the case in Kurt Thomas’s second recording (with the Leipzig Thomaners) from 1958. The most memorable feature is a young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the kind of form which earmarked him for posterity in the famous St Matthew for Richter a few months earlier. While beautifully remastered, there’s a disillusioned air to proceedings and it is Karl Richter’s second recording – after a pedestrian, ‘work-in-progress’ attempt for Das Alte Werk in 1955 – that heralds the brave new world. Ten years on, Richter is the ultimate purposeful and charismatic director with his seasoned Munich forces and stunning soloists: Gundula Janowitz, Christa Ludwig and Fritz Wunderlich (who had given us a hint of his delectable Evangelist in Parts 1‑3 for August Langenbeck). Richter presents a corporate muscularity juxtaposed with solo vocal warmth, especially from the luminous Janowitz and Wunderlich. The sensational trumpet-playing of Maurice André aside (the last chorus the finest on disc), Richter yields irregularly to the emotional possibilities.

The same cannot be said for the less technically impressive but profoundly affectionate account from Fritz Werner. This 1963 performance is aesthetically more in the Lehmann than Richter mould with its vocal intimacy (especially from the tender Evangelist Helmut Krebs) and open-hearted obbligato playing allowing the more pastoral qualities of the score to blossom. Somewhere between the theological concentration of Richter and the generous, unaffected Werner comes the 1966 Decca account from Karl Münchinger and his Stuttgarters. Elly Ameling and Helen Watts sing with uniform persuasiveness, though Peter Pears’s clear and urgently declaimed Evangelist is distinctive if tonally restricted. Münchinger is never less than dependable. The Sinfonia to Part 2 is as touching an evocation of abiding shepherds as you’ll find.

Ameling features in both Eugen Jochum’s and Philip Ledger’s recordings from the 1970s, the latter with the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, uncomfortably sharp and forced. This interpretation sounds strangely more like a ‘period piece’ than several earlier versions. Robert Tear is not the most idiomatic Bachian, and the addition of an over-characterising Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau to an English mix of objectively crisp chamber playing sounds disorientating in this magnificent chapel. ‘Herr, dein Mitleid’, the duet for soprano and bass, is the pick of the set pieces.

The Historical Advent

The proportion of Oratorio performances on period instruments rose significantly during the 1970s. Nikolaus Harnoncourt had quickly established his Bach credentials in the first volumes of the complete cantata series, co-directed with Gustav Leonhardt, and in 1972 recorded a performance which, in addition to his usual singers, employed a treble from the Vienna Boys’ Choir to sing all the soprano arias. The essence of this pioneering reading is captured in the visceral, chamber-like instrumental playing of Concentus Musicus, a kind of Renaissance-style pageantry to the choruses, an intimate acoustic and the extraordinary veracity of Kurt Equiluz’s Evangelist.

A year later Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden, with the Tolzer Knabenchor and Collegium Aureum, embarked on a recording which, with significantly more wrinkles than Harnoncourt’s, bursts forth with spirited expectation as the Nativity is vigorously explored. Some may baulk at the hybrid stylistic world of ‘not-quite-authentic’ (eg modern strings, albeit gut) but there is a gratifying eloquence throughout, enhanced significantly by a fine German alto boy soloist, Andreas Stein, who irradiates ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’ – the cradling all the more tender for the few years which separate the singer from his own infancy.

Less atmospheric – but rather more recognisable in terms of increasing technical surety and the aesthetic of objectivity which flavoured ‘early music’ at the cusp of the 1980s – is Hanns-Martin Schneidt’s reading with the Regensburger Domspatzen (whose director for 30 years was Georg Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI’s brother), which espouses safety to such lengths as to render the whole a disappointingly dour essay.

The Modern Era

Any survey of Bach’s major choral works is likely to be punctuated by at least three recordings under Helmuth Rilling. There are two major commercial accounts of the Oratorio with homegrown Stuttgart forces and two others from Poland and Hungary (which are not under consideration). The 1984 reading coincided neatly with the conclusion of his complete cantata series. Rilling increasingly took a pragmatic view towards traditional practice, paying only ‘lip service’ to period performance, which resulted in pangs of conscience with respect to tempi, ornament, balance and articulation. The singing of Arleen Auger and Evangelist Peter Schreier is especially polished – as is the orchestra and chorus – yet the pre-ordained placement of each phrase makes for wearing listening. One longs for something altogether less harnessed.

Rilling’s later version from 1999 follows a similar template but the choruses crackle here with considerably more glee and variety, and each part infectiously follows the last with connective logic (the wise men’s arrival from the East is handled with seasoned timing). The soloists are all outstanding, thoughtful and often radiant. The soprano Sibylla Rubens makes an operatic ‘scena’ out of the tempestuous recitative and fervent aria ‘Nur ein Wink’ in Part 6. James Taylor is a compelling Evangelist as advocate, commentator and, generally, all-embracing dramatis persona. While only intermittently fulfilling, for many of the fixtures hard-wired into Rilling, this is still distinguished on many levels and never less than exciting.

Among a large number of German recordings from the 1980s to the current day, Peter Schreier is another major Bach figure of the period. Falling somewhere between the ruminative landscape of Richter (at his best) and Rilling’s sleek, homogeneous ensemble, Schreier is generally more stylistically inquisitive than both and musically his reading is more eventful than all of Rilling’s. He applies flair and elegance – leading from the front as Evangelist – but his soloists too often seem trapped in reconciling between old and new vocal styles. Even so, Schreier’s Bach comes from within (and this is where he is more a Richter than a Rilling) and his understanding regularly makes disarming sense of the music.

No such stylistic scruples seem to affect Schreier’s first trumpet, Ludwig Güttler, though his flamboyant tendencies dissolve under his own baton to such an extent that the routine prevails. When reviewing it in 1999, I considered Greg Fungfeld’s recording of the Bach Choir from Pennsylvania to be rather in the same vein, but on reacquaintance found agreeable swathes (especially in Parts 4 and 5) of an old American mainstream ‘house style’ which, with some better soloists, might have attracted more plaudits. The 1992 Naxos recording under Geza Oberfrank with Hungarian forces is a far livelier affair with responsive soloists in the arias but, sadly, the Evangelist struggles badly in the high register. An unwieldy Radio Choir skating over detail, in too resonant an acoustic, disqualifies this reading in the same way as that by Enoch zu Guttenberg appears to have been painted by numbers in a story of a thousand mannerisms.

Other than Rilling, Michel Corboz is probably the next most prolific ‘recorder’ of Bach’s major choral works (there are four B minor Masses). His performances often sit betwixt and between prevailing approaches without an especially definable artistic presence. The 1984 account of the Oratorio is hardly revelatory but it is a sprightly, texturally bright and tidy reading. Carolyn Watkinson’s delectable ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’ is a genuine highlight. There’s also ample evidence of why Barbara Schlick and Kurt Equiluz are among the most perceptive Bachians of their generation.

Riccardo Chailly’s Bach from the Gewandhaus espouses the ‘Third Way’, as Chailly calls it, where romantic and ‘period’ style find a happy synergy. For many it will satisfy beyond measure. The orchestral playing is supremely polished, assured and with pinpoint nuancing. The Dresden Kammerchor and vocal soloists fulfil Chailly’s ambition for unremitting leanness and breathtaking mobility, and yet my heart tends to sink under gymnastic survey and über-elegance. I savoured ‘Frohe Hirten’ as rarely before – the agile tenor Wolfram Lattke is so completely allied with his fluting partner that the shepherds almost take off in exultation. Carolyn Sampson is irresistible throughout.

Recent Period Performance

With John Eliot Gardiner’s uniquely open-shouldered and virtuoso Bach performances, the new ‘period’ generation was transformed in a trice from the mid-1980s. The poetic sensibility and vocal allure of Anthony Rolfe Johnson is as memorable here as it was in Gardiner’s St John Passion. The solo singing is seamlessly distinguished, from Anne Sofie von Otter’s bloom-filled and pliably decorated ‘Bereite dich’ to the recitative quartet at the end. This is indeed a highly accomplished and consistent reading, one where Bach’s sense of imagery is especially keenly developed. The chorales are vintage Monteverdi Choir, though the choruses are not as embracing or electric as one feels they could have been.

Soon after Gardiner, Philippe Herreweghe followed in 1989 with a more intimate and soft-edged reading. Seeking vocal homogeneity which infected the instrumental cadre down to mildly dabbed timpani, Herreweghe skips through with a decorous attention to detail though little rhetorical presence. Howard Crook is a cultivated Evangelist but neither he nor the excellent Michael Chance and Peter Kooij can find that incremental sense of jubilation which the finest readings offer; the recording also lacks the precision of the finest choirs.

Ralf Otto enjoys a ringing and alert Evangelist in Christoph Prégardien and a refined Concerto Köln but his account falls short on energy and personality. Nothing could be further from the case in Ton Koopman’s performance, guided again by Prégardien but now as a far more compelling presence, and ignited by his exceptional Amsterdam colleagues and the especially evocative wind-playing (led by oboist Marcel Ponseele). His ‘Ich will nur’ in Part 4 is exceptional. Discrete but deft organ continuo-playing and lovingly crafted chorales – such as ‘Wir singen’ between Parts 2 and 3 – contribute to Koopman’s intensely focused and atmospheric vision across the piece. Only the women soloists fail consistently to reach the level, and the framing choruses of Parts 1 and 6 are technically uneven.

Like Koopman, Masaaki Suzuki approached the Oratorio within the gargantuan task of committing all the cantatas to disc. Suzuki’s unwaveringly felicitous choices are noticeably evident as we approach the close of the cantata project, 15 years after this beautifully judged reading. Some may miss the cut and thrust of a Gardiner or the cultivated solo contributions in recordings by Corboz or Chailly but a meticulous attention to detail, superlative balance and speeds which allow the music to proceed with dignity in the gradual, contemplative unfolding of events are second nature to Suzuki. If there is a drawback, it’s the shortage of captivating solo singing and absorbing characterisation. Despite Peter Kooij’s visceral recitatives and Yoshikazu Mera’s quixotic alto sound, this impressive reading is just too smooth and uneventful.

René Jacobs’s idea of the work could not be more radically different: brazen, grand choruses, purposeful, operatic-style recitatives (with endlessly distracting strumming) and biting arias which, in their strutting gait, extrovert articulation and tonal opulence border on the vain – from Andreas Scholl’s busy ‘Bereite’ to a frenetic terzetto in Part 5. The chorales squeeze the last pips and the adagissimo in the Part 2 Sinfonia says too much about the artist and not enough about Bach.

Other readings which miss the top table include a generically turned 1993 concert performance from Eric Ericson and his eponymous choir with a ropy Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble, and a more recent reading from Hermann Max where over-accentuation and instrumental bulging expose the worst of ‘period’ ticks alongside some approximate intonation. No such problems occur for Philip Pickett, who brings a warm and integrated palette to the pastoral chorus elements. His view is principally one of theatrical observation through imaginative calibrations of texture between voices and instruments, of which the poised New London Consort are masters in earlier repertoire. Here, Pickett seems less attracted to long-term rhetorical investment than capturing the essence of the moment – such as the solicitous arioso duet ‘Jesu, du mein liebstes Leben’: Catherine Bott and Michael George, beautifully accompanied, provide an unforgettable vignette. Harry Christophers and The Sixteen present a more conventional interpretative landscape. It’s a generously conceived and well-directed but rather low-key reading. Mark Padmore has developed into an Evangelist of far greater range since 1993.

Vulgar velvet packaging jars with the tasteful and unobtrusive reading from Jos van Veldhoven and the Netherlands Bach Society. His expressive intentions are always likely to be compromised with such mercurial solo singing, though the terzetto ‘Ach wenn wird die Zeit’ is attractive and supple. Far more telling are the thrills and spills of Diego Fasolis with his Lugano-based forces and imported soloists. Fasolis always brings a sense of delight, even mischief (the da capo of the opening chorus starts pianissimo!). Despite the mollifying quality of Charles Daniels’s deeply satisfying and mature Evangelist, Fasolis takes brilliant expressive risks, if occasionally a touch close to the edge. ‘Herr, dein Mitleid’, with Lynn Dawson and Klaus Mertens, is played out like a love duet and yet it fits a canvas of sprung vitality which, mostly, renders the rough edges undistracting. Despite a few glitches, each cantata represents a clarion of warmth, freedom and optimism, beckoning the listener to experience the work in a single breath.


There are three complete DVDs of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. In the first, Harnoncourt directs his Concentus Musicus Wien in a highly staged, decidedly dated (1981) and surprisingly doctrinal reading from the Waldhausen Church. In the second, Peter Dijkstra oversees an organised but jerkily propelled 2010 live performance with the Bavarian Radio Choir and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin in the resonant Herkulessaal in Munich. And that leaves John Eliot Gardiner and his English Baroque Soloists in the last few days of the 20th century in the Herderkirche in Weimar: an intimate space with gripping ensembles (especially fine instrumental obbligati) and, mostly, excellent solo singing.

The Ultimate Recording

As Harnoncourt represented the advent of historical Oratorio recordings in 1972, so he seeks a kind of epiphany in his large-scale, spacious and glamorous interpretation from the Musikverein at Christmas in 2006. Thirty-plus years on and there’s a relaxed, almost southern-European feel alongside Harnoncourt’s recognition that with ‘powerful mental pictures’ (rather than intense action), the ‘galanterie’ of late Bach is especially fitting for the subject. That is just one means to seek original coloration in the score, fervently explored with exquisite, if not always flawless, instrumental mosaics and radiant singing. Werner Güra warms into the role of Evangelist but it is the poetic ambition of Christine Schäfer (‘Flösst, mein heiland’ magically projects the unpredictability of the outdoors) and her co-soloists that reinforces the inspiration which breezes over this penetrating and original encounter with the Oratorio.

If Fasolis temporarily held sway in my affections, Harnoncourt’s later version is my top choice: an account elevating these six great tableaux to a level where Bach, at his most mature and luminous, irresistibly conveys the wonders of Christmas.

Overall Choice

Harnoncourt • DHM

If not always the most comforting reading, this is the performance which attempts most rivetingly to seek the essence of Bach’s musical imagery and meaning. Harnoncourt’s considered identity with each ‘event’ in the narrative places the work outside anything remotely pragmatic or generic.

DVD Choice

Gardiner • ArtHaus Musik

Bernarda Fink has her head buried in her copy but the Evangelist, Christoph Genz, sings without any music and tells the story without flinching. A documentary on local Bachiana is an enjoyable bonus.



Historic Choice

Werner • Erato

Werner was a quiet and unassuming poet of Bach and he is supported with almost peerless empathy by his long-term Evangelist, Helmut Krebs, and some radiant instrumental characterisation.

Close Second Choice

Fasolis • Arts 

This is the version for all-round delight and unexpected wonder. I initially missed this recording when it was released and what a loss it would have been: relish the concerted spiritedness from top to bottom.

Selected Discography

Date / Artists / Record company (review date)

1955 Stuttgart Rad SO / Langenbeck (pts 1-3 only) Profil PH08028

1958 Leipzig Gewandhaus Orch / Thomas Berlin Classics 0021912BC (12/62R); 0300034BC

1963 Pforzheim CO / Werner Erato 2564 61403-2 (1/05)

1965 Munich Bach Orch / K Richter Archiv 427 236-2AX3 (3/89); DG 463 701-2AB10

1966 Stuttgart CO / Münchinger Decca 455 410-2DF2 (12/67R); Newton 8802001

1972 Concentus Musicus Wien / Harnoncourt WCJ 2564 69854-0 (12/86R)

1973 Bavarian Rad SO / Jochum Philips 416 40-2PB3 (9/73R – nla)

1973 Collegium Aureum / Schmidt-Gaden DHM 88697 57577-2 (4/88R); 88697 58759-2

1976 ASMF / Ledger EMI 217625-2 (10/77R)

1977 Collegium St Emmeram / Schneidt Archiv 477 6282AM3 (10/79R)

1981 Concentus Musicus Wien / Harnoncourt DG 073 4104GH

1984 Lausanne CO / Corboz Apex 2564 68621-7 (12/84R)

1984 Bach Collegium Stuttgart / Rilling Hänssler Classic CD98 851/3 (2/95); CD98 976

1987 English Baroque Sols / Gardiner Archiv 423 232-2AH2 (12/87); DG 469 769-2X9

1987 Staatskapelle Dresden / Schreier Philips 475 9155POR3 (12/87R)

1989 Collegium Vocale, Ghent / Herreweghe Virgin Classics 759530-2 (12/89R)

1991 Conc Cologne / Otto Capriccio 60 025 (4/92)

1992 Failoni CO / Oberfrank Naxos 8 550428/30 (4/93)

1993 Sixteen / Christophers Coro COR16017 (12/93R); COR16072

1993 Drottningholm Baroque Ens / Ericson Proprius PRCD2012/13

1995 Virtuosi Saxoniae / Güttler Berlin Classics 0011352BC; 0184192BC

1996 Amsterdam Baroque Orch / Koopman Erato 0630 14635-2 (3/97)

1997 KlangVerwaltung Orch / Guttenberg Farao B108015

1997 Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin / Jacobs Harmonia Mundi HMX290 1630/31 (12/97R)

1997 New London Consort / Pickett L’Oiseau-Lyre 458 838-2OH2 (5/00 – nla)

1998 Bach Fest Orch / Funfgeld Dorian DOR93183 (2/00)

1998 Bach Collegium Japan / Suzuki BIS BIS-CD941/2 (2/99)

1999 English Baroque Sols / Gardiner ArtHaus Musik 101 237

1999 Bach Collegium Stuttgart / Rilling Hänssler Classic CD92 076 (1/01)

2002 Netherlands Bach Society / Veldhoven Channel Classics CCSSA20103 (1/04)

2002/03 Swiss Rad Orch / Fasolis Arts 47714-8

2006/07 Concentus Musicus Wien / Harnoncourt DHM 88697 11225-2 (12/07)

2009 Kleine Konzert / Max CPO CPO777 459-2

2010 Leipzig Gewandhaus Orch / Chailly Decca 478 2271DH2

2010 Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin / Dijkstra BR-Klassik 900502

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Gramophone

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