JS BACH Christmas Oratorio (Rademann)
Gone are the days when a Christmas Oratorio was a three-CD affair. This one fits on two discs with room to spare for the original, secular version of the opening chorus, ‘Tönet, ihr Pauken’, which blows in like a late guest to the party with a strenuous insistence on more festive D major after the Passion-inflected close of the oratorio proper.
Only now and again does Hans-Christoph Rademann’s sprightly tactus work against the Affekt at hand – in the gentle swing of the chorus to open the fourth cantata, for instance, where a businesslike spring also minimises the textural impact of buzzing natural horns. Sebastian Kohlhepp is also pushed for comfort in the same cantata’s ‘Ich will nur dir’, though the aria’s tessitura also lies a little low for him; he is otherwise a personable, engaging Evangelist, as distant from solemn Gospel reporters of old as (say) Jon Snow is from Sir Alastair Burnet, and right at home in the near-Eastern political machinations of the Fifth.
Otherwise the high-impact openings to the odd-numbered cantatas come off best, with crisp choral singing backed by playing that’s as dry and crackling with purpose as ash twigs aflame in a winter grate. The tonal palette of both ensemble and recording tilts towards the treble; there is less body to Anna Lucia Richter’s soprano than might be anticipated from her central contribution to Marin Alsop’s superb German Requiem (Naxos, 9/13).
Sometimes not everyone is on the same page, stylistically speaking. In the extended ‘Herr, dein Mitleid’ duet, Richter and Michael Nagy fit the short-breathed continuo but not the more cantabile line of the obbligato oboe. Star of the show is Wiebke Lehmkuhl; perhaps not such a surprise in a work where (like Verdi’s Requiem or Don Carlo) the alto sometimes seems to have all the best tunes. With her every appearance the sometimes frenetic pulse of the performance is centred and the work of her instrumental colleagues more focused; you can hear them listening to her. There is indeed an Erda-like gravity to her vocal presence that has already been refined onstage, and should further enhance the Royal Opera’s next Ring cycle.