J.S. Bach: Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio)

Discussion in 'Classical Music' started by tones, Jun 20, 2003.

  1. tones

    tones compulsive cantater

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    Not really an oratorio in the Handelian sense, but a set of six cantatas to be performed on different days of the Lutheran Christmas season. As in other Bach major choral works, plagiarism is rife, not only from himself but from others (quite in order in those pre-copyright days). The magnificent opening chorale "Jauchzet frohlocket!", full of trumpets and drums, is from a secular cantata, the opening words of which were (oddly enough) "beat the drums and sound the trumpets!" The most hilarious example is the beautiful cradle song in Cantata 2, which is taken from a seduction aria in a secular cantata! And as an illustration of Bach's deeply-held faith, the famous Hassler Easter chorale melody, still sung at Easter today as "O sacred head" and which forms the centrepiece of the St. Matthew Passion, appears twice, the second time as a bright up-tempo final chorale with a glorious solo trumpet obbligato. At Jesus's birth, Bach was looking ahead to the events of Good Friday.

    Now, recordings. My favourites are John Eliot Gardiner. "Favourites?" I hear you say. Well, my favourite is the fabulous DVD set of Gardiner and his merry (wo)men in live performance in the Herderkirche in Weimar, a church Bach would have known. A fabulous performance, full of brightness and joy, with the video adding enormously to the pleasure of the experience. Gardiner's affection for the work is clearly on show.

    Of audio-only versions, Gardiner's Archiv set is the best to me. The lively tempi chosen by Gardner and the superb work of the Monteverdis set this version apart. Just listen to the opening chorus of Cantata 5 - breathtaking, lively and fully controlled. Could it be done better? I have my doubts

    I have a few other versions (Pickett, Herreweghe, Harnoncourt), and while they offer pleasure, and in some numbers better Gardiner, none in my opinion comes close to Gardiner overall.

    An honourable mention to a non-authentic performance, an old Philips recording by Eugen Jochum. Beside the original instrument versions, it can sound rather ponderous, but, like Klemperer's versions of Bach's B Minor Mass and St. Matt., it has a certain grandeur, and I still dig out the vinyl (yes, THAT old) and play it now and again, and I still enjoy it. One of the glories of the Christmas Oratorio is the aria "Grosser Herr und starker König" that comes at the end of Cantata 1. Nowhere is it done better than by Jochum, with Hermann Prey's rich baritone and Willi Bauer's wonderfully delicate trumpet obbligato playing patterns around him (the modern clarino trumpets are a lot easier to control than the old valveless monsters). This one aria justifies the price of the entire set (a cheap set these days, I think).
     
    tones, Jun 20, 2003
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  2. tones

    tones compulsive cantater

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    I've just acquired the Harry Christophers/Sixteen recording - cost a whole 10 Euro, with postage. But what a cheapskate production - no booklet at all! So, all we know are the names of the soloists and "the Sixteen Choir and Orchestra" - pity, I like to know who's playing. It appears to have originated with Collins Classics.

    But the most important thing - the performance - is excellent. Nicely played and sung. The Sixteen sing well, right up there with Gardiner's Monteverdis, if lacking a bit in the exhilaration department - they handle the wonderful skittering chorus "Ehre sei dir, Gott!" that starts Cantata 5 with great aplomb. The Orchestra does an excellent job, and the soloists are generally good. Tempi are generally slower than Gardiner's So, while Gardiner is clearly better (IMO, of course), when you toss in the price, this is a considerable bargain, and must be the No.1 recommendation for someone wanting to get to know the work.
     
    tones, Dec 14, 2003
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  3. tones

    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    My favorite recording is Harnoncourt's. The boys faults are right - Christmas spirit - and each cantata is very well structured.

    Gardiner's is good IMO, of course, but when you listen to the six cantatas sequentially, all the trepidation is bound to annoy. Granted, the work was never meant to be listened to sequentially.

    Suzuki's is also good, but you definitely have to listen to each cantata separately. Otherwise it will be boring.

    There is also a rather subdued and well … oily, if that means anything; perhaps I mean amorphous … version by Herreweghe. I never liked it, but some people love it.
     
    Rodrigo de Sá, Dec 27, 2003
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  4. tones

    tones compulsive cantater

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    I agree about Herreweghe, RdS, I have it and it rarely ever gets played. I don't mucn care for Nicky H's, but then, unlike Eisenach, I never did like the Telefunken "Das Alte Werke" stuff, always sounding as if it were recorded in Nicky's backyard, with the thin, scrawny instrumental sound, the insecure intonation and the Wiener Sängerknaben (I'm not keen on boy sopranos, no matter how "authentic" they are). I'm a JEG man!
     
    tones, Dec 27, 2003
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  5. tones

    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    Dear Tones:

    neither did I like the Das Alte Werk series - and I agree with you about the bad sound. Now Eisenach says the quality of sound varies; I think he may be right, but I've been mostly unlucky: most of what I have sounds odd.

    I also agree with the intonation problems, but I do like boy sopranos. As you know boys reach adolescence much earliernowadays, and therefore we tend to get bad singers. In baroque days they had more time to be trained.

    Even so, I love a Knabenchor. And Schütz doesn't seem to sound right with women voices.

    That said, the boy soprano (amd mezzo, too) was, I think, partially a marketing decision.

    Nikolaus d'Harnoncourt (that's his name, he dropped the d' for marketing reasons) made his way calling everybody else ignorant: he claimed he KNEW how to perform the music and that others were (I quote from memory) 'a mix of genius and ignorance' (he was talking about Karajan, whom he both revered and disliked). So he pretended to be objective (which he never was) and museological (which he isn't), and that was supposed to account for the difference.

    In this way, every problem of intonation (and there were several) was supposed by the public to be a consequence of historical and organological considerations (which was a plain deception).

    So he really bluffed his way into the scene. Nowadays most people know that he did NOT know a lot. On the contrary, he knew rather little (as did - and still does - Leonhardt, no matter how wonderful a musician he is).

    Most musicologists of the time protested. Particularly the phrasing and the agogics (what is accented and what isn't) were completely wrong. But the sixties were a time of revolution and change, and so Harnoncourt was the right person at the right time. Most of his worshipers were young people that wished for a better, less cluttered world. That won it for him, and for the 'baroqueux' in general (except in organ music: Leonhardt did record some Bach, but it was so bad it convinced no one).

    This is all to say that we have to take Das alte Werk recordings cum grano salis. What I do is just to consider Harnoncourt's and Leonhartd's interpretations as anybody else's.

    So the question boils down to this: are they musically convincing? I already made my opinion clear concerning Leonhardt: he is a very great musician. And what about Harnoncourt? I think he generally is. Not always, because he is too trenchant and strives to be unique and innovative (that is evident when you compare his two Matthauspassionen; the second borders on the bizarre even if it is quite good). But he has a good sense of structure, and has a very broad palette of musical emotions – mostly on the quick and abrupt side, but nevertheless rather broad.

    Again, how did this post get so long??

    I hope you (and all who read this) had a Merry Christmas.
     
    Rodrigo de Sá, Dec 27, 2003
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  6. tones

    Herman

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    My guess is because you wanted to discredit Harnoncourt and Leonhardt. I'm interested though. Who were the musicologists of the time who said they were wrong? Were they (so to speak) old school? I'm sure the early authenticists were wrong in a lot of things at the start, and no doubt there was a lot of internal squabbling, because they were just starting out on this journey of cleaning up the performance practice. But I may misinterpret your remarks.

    So perhaps Harnoncourt used a little bluff and overstatement in his early career (Leonhardt too?). But please name me the conductor who doesn't do these kinds of things. It's an art of persuasion after all. At least they didn't sign up a couple of times in the Nazi Partei, like the Karajans of this world.[/QUOTE]

    Herman
     
    Herman, Dec 28, 2003
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  7. tones

    tones compulsive cantater

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    I would discredit neither Leonhardt nor Harnoncourt, Hermann, but I remember well the "Das Alte Werke" stuff hitting the market in the early '70s and thinking how unspeakably arrogant some of the accompanying literature was, ditto some of the stuff that Harnoncourt was quoted as saying. It was strongly implied (and even stated outright sometimes) that this was the only way to perform music of the baroque period and earlier. I don't think too many music scholars agreed with that.

    There's no doubt that it blew a breath of fresh air through the performance of baroque music and caused radical and worthwhile changes, but it was sooooo pompous to dismiss top-class ensembles such as I Musici and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, just because they played modern instruments. The whole business was later thankfully toned down. Moreover, being pioneers, Harnoncourt and Leonhardt made mistakes from which they and others learned. Basically, we lovers of the baroque period owe them a lot, but many of us didn't love them so much at the time!
     
    tones, Dec 28, 2003
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  8. tones

    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    Tongue in cheek again, aren't you Herman? At Naim I am attacked as a baroque and period instrument maniac: over here I am the conservative who doesn't like the Leonhardt/Harnoncourt movement? Come on!!

    I was thinking particularly of Robert Marshall. He wrote an essay on 'Aspects of Performance Practice' [of the music of JSBAch] (not sure about the title, but I can check it if you wish) in which he quite showed Harnoncourt to be quite wrong.

    There are several issues here. One is overdotting; another ornamentation; there is also tempo; agogics; and finally (but specific to teh organ) registration practice.

    On overdotting: Leonhardt got it from Arnold Dolmetsch; the idea was that every dotted note should be overdotted, as in French music. That has been seriously questioned - the fact that the French did it does not imply the German did it too; and we know Couperin wrote his essay precisely because of that.

    As a matter of fact (check the recording of the d major fugue on the WTC) Leonhardt even overdotted when other voices proceeded in semiquavers, which was almost certainly not the intention of Bach (see CPE Bach's Essay and also Davitt Moroney's introduction to his version of the Art of Fugue - Henle Verlag).

    Ornamentation. There is a lot written about it. No one knows for sure, but we can say what 16th Century ornamentation was like in certain countries, and what common practice was during Bach's days. But no one is really sure. And, of course, there is the vexed question of whether we must ornament further in Bach. Koopman certainly overdoes it.

    Tempo. All we know is that Bach generally adopted a quick tempo; Forkel, Bach's first biographer, who knew CPE Bach rather well, states that this is true except for the organ; this was universally rejected by the baroqueux as being Forkel's own opinion. Nevertheless, is evident if you look at the time signatures of organ or harpsichord pieces: slower ones on the organ, of course. In fact, if you listened live to most of the recordings of Bach organ music, you would just listen to a thick mist of sound - in a large church reverberation completely imposes the tempo.

    Agogics. The French played two semiquavers as unequal, the first lasting longer. This was transposed to most of all baroque music (not by Leonhardt - his approach was more subtle). As it happens, Frescobaldi expressly requires the first semiquaver to be shorter than the second; Rodrigues Coelho, about the same time, said they were to be played equal.

    There also was a lot of discussion about phrasing: short or long phrases? In Bach, you just have to listen to the bass - it really imposes thhe phrasing (although not in fugues), and they are not that small: they allow a constant flow of music. I think Gilbert got it right, here.

    Registration practice I'll leave aside, as most people do not care and it is boring to explain without an organ anyway. There is not yet a consensus about it.

    So, you see, the bold and plain arrogant statements Harnoncourt made on interviews and on the booklets of his albums were totally unjustified.

    Which leads to:
    No, I don't think Leonhardt did it. He just played convincingly well and so everybody was impressed (although his first recordings are plain horrible - but no one took those seriously). His choice for 'original harpsichords helped him, too. But he tried - he himself said that in an interview published in a recent book - just to understand the instrument and the music, not just copy what he thought was done at the time.

    Harnoncourt is, of course, much more opportunistic. At the moment, having achieved the status he wanted, he says the 'original instruments' question is irrelevant!! But I don't say this do denigrate his merits. He is an extremely good musician.

    So why did I said he made his way dishonestly to the front pages? Because of the context of the recent discussions on this forum, about the merits and demerits of the Das alte Werk series; for instance, in France, whatever Harnoncourt did or does gets a nomination (well, almost: he didn't get away with it in the Bruckner 8th). And that is just because he made people think he KNEW, and the others we ignoramuses.

    But yes, you are right about that - Karajan did join the Nazi Partei, but he remains a superb musician (whether one likes his musical choices).

    You just have to understand the context in which I said Harnoncourt bluffed his way into the limelight.
     
    Rodrigo de Sá, Dec 28, 2003
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  9. tones

    PeteH Natural Blue

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    Will hopefully come back to this thread as I've only just bought a recording of the Christmas Oratorio (don't know it yet :eek: ) but I just wanted to say: the recording in question was the Gardiner, on the Archiv set with the Matthew and John Passions and the B Minor Mass to boot, 9CDs all told and mine for the princely sum of... £14.99. :D Thank you very much, Mr HMV Sale :p
     
    PeteH, Dec 29, 2003
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  10. tones

    tones compulsive cantater

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    15 quid? Wow! you stole it, Pete - the sale price in Hug in Zürich was CHF109 (about £49), andf I thought that that was good value (well, it was - for Switzerland...). All four pieces are splendidly done, and the Weihnachtsoratorium and B Minor Mass are the best I've heard.
     
    tones, Dec 29, 2003
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  11. tones

    bat Connoisseur Par Excelence

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    A splendid Peter Schreier version is included in a cheap boxed 12 CD Scheier set on Philips. Classic CD magazine declared it the best a few years ago, too.
     
    bat, Feb 22, 2004
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  12. tones

    Rodrigo de Sá This club's crushing bore

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    I know a St. John's Passion by Peter Schreier. It is OK, very angular and abrupt, but expressive. And if you like his tone (I personally think his name says it all), go ahead.
     
    Rodrigo de Sá, Feb 22, 2004
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  13. tones

    tones compulsive cantater

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    Funny you should say that, RdS, I was talking to a guy in work yesterday. This guy runs a sideline in rare LPs and he sends them all over the world. He is also a lover of Bach cantatas and had records of them of which I've never heard, going back to pre-WW2. He quite liked Richter, but one of the things he doesn't like is Schreier with his "metallic" tone, as he put it.

    I always quite liked Schreier, stemming from a live performance I once attended at the Munich Kongresssaal, with Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra doing the Christmas Oratorio. Curiously, Schreier was the only German soloist, the rest were English (even the trumpet part was played by John Wilbraham!), and I found him excellent.
     
    tones, Mar 13, 2004
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