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 Oratoriorecordings 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.
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.
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.
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.
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