Bach: Weihnachtsoratorium

[Sunhae Inn, Petra Noskaiová, Stephan Scherpe, Jan Van der Crabben SATB], La Petite Bande, Sigiswald Kuijken
139:22 (2 CDs)
Challenge Classics CC72394

Kuijken’s Weihnachtsoratorium is a treat: it’s clear as a bell, with every note of every line audible, and the tuning very precise. As you would expect from La Petite Bande, it’s all one-to-a-part, except for doubling the upper strings, so the balance of voices, strings, wind and brass is as it is, and the liner notes say that this hasn’t been messed around with by the recording engineers! No finger-holes in the trumpets, so ringing D major chords and some lovely 6ths, and Sara Kuijken, the second violin, doubles elegantly as the echo soprano in Flößt, mein Heiland in IV.4.

The voices are a pretty good blend: Kuijken often uses Van der Crabben, and while the clarity of his real bass voice provides an excellent foundation for the singers, he can also offer a lyrical quality in arias like Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen with the oboe d’amore in V.5 or the duet with the soprano in III.6. Petra Noskaiová, the alto, is another of Kuijken’s frequent singers, and is very good too – she has all the clarity you need for the chorus work, and a robust and distinctive sound for the solo material: listen to her line in the Terzetto in V.9, where she offers a very distinctive counter-balance to the S/T duet. The tenor, Stephan Scherpe, is a real find, singing the choruses with control and restraint, the evangelista with effortless clarity and his arias – especially Frohe Hirten – with precision and panache. About the soprano I feel less sure. The voice quality is always more problematic as you go higher in the vocal range, and although she is fine when not under pressure (as in Flößt, mein Heiland in IV.4), Sunhae Im does not match the superlative boy, Leopold Lampelsdorfer, who recorded I-III with Holger Eichhorn and the Musicalische Compagney in 2012 (which I reviewed in EMR 153) in the ensemble work. (Eichhorn never did IV to VI with Lampelsdorfer.) There is something about sopranos singing OVPP which needs exploring: it is more audible, and so more distracting, if you press on a note tied over a barline, which can add an unhelpful and occasionally panicky-sounding edge, rather than floating these held notes as a viol player would; and then there is the question of whether the almost unconscious soloist’s vibrato – especially in concerted passages – confuses the choral texture. How can singers learn to judge the different style that is needed for an aria and then in the chorus of four voices? Having said this, the ensemble is excellent in the largely homophonic passage like Wo ist der neugeborne König (V.3)
     Tempi are judicious – perhaps a bonus from not having a driven conductor in charge? – and I imagine the layout is similar to the Petite Bande performances you can see on YouTube, where the singers stand together in front of the organ in the middle, and the players ring them on a raised box – strings on the left-hand side and the substantial bass violin next to the organ (there isn’t any 16’ of course – and I don’t miss it) with the brass and wind to the right. With Kuijken leading and directing the ensemble from the wing of the instruments, there are only occasional moments when I feel the lack of an independent conductor, but the players are attentive to each other, and know where to make the minute adjustments for the singers that give this performance its caressing chamber music quality without sacrificing its dancelike energy.
     I like this performance, and am very happy to live with it long-term.

David Stancliffe