Bach Christmas Oratorio
History has not judged kindly the revisiting of major Bach choral works by eminent conductors. Here is the exception. Nikolaus Harnoncourt recorded the Christmas Oratorio 35 years ago (and there was a live Unitel video in 1981) but this is a musician whose third reading of the St Matthew Passion in 2000 plumbed depths of understanding and characterisation of a quite different order from his previous accounts. Likewise, this significant and richly endowed contribution to the catalogue, whose defining rationale is the exploration of the Oratorio’s joyous and elegant poetic fervour, asks similarly penetrating questions. These are different challenges to the Passions in that Bach’s careful assembling of material for six “parts” or cantatas provides no obviously sustained “action” but, rather, tableaux from the majesty of Christ’s birth and the annunciation of the shepherds to the coming of the Three Wise Men as Epiphany approaches. Binding the themes and harnessing the material into an integrated whole for a single sitting (not necessarily inimical to Bach’s planning, despite being spread over the six Feast Days of Christmas, 1734-35) takes more than just a few well judged tempi and a generic Yuletide esprit.
Harnoncourt’s recording, taken from live performances in the Musikverein last Christmas, succeeds in this regard with uncanny freshness and generosity. Without a hint of world-weariness, each movement builds on the experience of what has been heard before (a device encouraged by Bach in his emollient and atmospheric instrumentation, and the decisive connections between each cantata). Bachians who know Harnoncourt’s Passion recordings will recognise the distinctive southern European classical tradition which has been brought to bear on his recent Bach performances. Witness the soft-grained radiance and ease, whether Mass or opera-inspired, which eschews an inward-looking and parochial outlook. Indeed, Harnoncourt is unique in his decisively pictorial and luminous landscape (in the more perennial oratorio tradition), alongside a highly developed ear for charting the work with kaleidoscopic, if occasionally maverick character. The springy choruses are bright but warm, spacious and unhurried, and packed with cathartic and lyrical dialogues between instruments and voices. The arias are also consistently probing, with fine performances from Christine Schäfer (“Nur ein Wink” is irresistible) and Bernarda Fink, whose “Schlafe” lives up to expectations (though one perhaps questions whether the faster speeds of the ritornelli reveal some patching).
Werner Güra’s narration takes a little time to warm up but by Part 2 he is in full swing with both unequivocal delivery and an impressive bravura in the unwieldy “Frohe Hirten”. Gerald Finley sings with open-hearted zeal and, despite occasional flatness, teams up touchingly with Schäfer in “Herr, dein Mitleid”. There is the odd rough edge and, inevitably, there are moments which will not be to everyone’s taste. But the unforced sweep of grandeur, complementing supple pastoral mosaics, marks out Harnoncourt’s Christmas Oratorio as a valuable and penetrating seasonal vision.