Richter, Mühlemann, Lemkuhl, Kohlhepp, Nagy SSATB, Gaechinger Cantorey, Hans-Christoph Rademann
151:43 (2 CDs in a walleted jewel box)
+Tönet, ihr Pauken (ex BWV214)
We were lucky enough to receive two copies of this recording, so both went out for review; we hope you find it interesting to read different people’s impressions
With a choir of 18.104.22.168 and strings of 22.214.171.124.2, this is a full-blooded performance in the modern German style, using the new Carus edition and parts, and soloists that are quite distinct from the chorus singers. All the musicians – singers and players alike – are excellent, so what is not to like? Not long ago, we would have been overjoyed to find such a neat and competent performance, but these days there are other considerations to be taken into account.
Regardless of which side you take in the matter of the size of Bach’s chorus, do you want a performance on CD where the sound of the chorus is entirely distinct from the singers who sing the arias? And what about the sound of the trumpets: are finger-holes to assist in correcting the tuning permissible or not? And the size of the organ in relation to the chorus? Here the Gaechinger Cantorey has set up a team of players to work with the singers, and commissioned an organ after Gottfried Silbermann as a basic building block of the sound they are seeking to emulate.
Since we have become used to OVPP performances with small instrumental as well as vocal forces from groups like Dunedin Consort, and singers of the arias being drawn from the ranks of a (much reduced) chorus with John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir, the landscape has changed subtly in England and in some respects the traditional divisions in Germany between choir and soloists, and a line-up that places a large choir at the back, with soloists out front rather than as partners in the music-making seems curiously old-fashioned.
Of its style and period, this is an excellent performance; and no chorus singer will readily surrender the pleasure of taking part in performances of Bach – perhaps especially in Germany where there are so many really excellent choirs and baroque instrumentalists around. Nonetheless, there are questions to be asked of a performance practice that assumes biggest is best. For example, you can order Carus parts for Bach Cantatas online only if you buy into the package that offers multiple string parts. Of course, Carus are delighted to sell you single string parts, but the assumption still is that ‘the orchestra’ will have many desks of violinists as its basic complement.
I’m afraid my first reaction to another recording of a very familiar masterpiece such as Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is to ask what it has to say that is new about this very familiar music. The wonderfully crisp and punchy opening, taken by Rademann at a daringly brisk tempo, soon established that this was a serious contender. The Gaechinger Cantorey, a choral group which has now acquired a superb period instrumental wing, is attached to the international Bachakademie in Stuttgart, so one would expect both excellence and scholarly rigour, and both are present aplenty in this recording. Add to that some wonderfully concise and expressive solo and ensemble singing, as well as some beautifully detailed solo and ensemble instrumental playing, and all the elements are in place for a successful recording of Bach’s masterpiece. Of particular merit are the contributions of the young soloists, particularly Sebastien Kohlhepp, who is a wonderfully expressive and apparently effortless Evangelist. Also impressive is the expressive ease of the double reed players, who conjure some wonderfully expressive sounds from their various breeds of oboe. Both singers and instrumentalists ornament tastefully, while the trumpeters show no signs that Bach’s lines are as challenging as they are, particularly given their conductor’s generally upbeat tempi. So this may be a pretty conventional reading of Bach’s music, but it is stunningly well executed and always beautifully musical. The recording, a combination of a live recording with subsequent non-live sessions, presumably to replace any sore bits or audience interruptions, is entirely effective, although it produces the curious anomaly that one of the soprano soloists appears live whereas the other doesn’t! Incidentally, I was revisiting over the festive season my CD of highlights from one of the first period instrument recordings of the work by the Collegium Aureum dating from 1973 and in which the trumpeters, playing horn-shaped clarini trumpets by Meinl and Lauber, still sound astonishing!
D. James Ross