Emotions and the Sacred in Bach’s ‘Weihnachtsoratorium’

Music Review: album cover
Johann Sebastian Bach: Christmas Oratorio I-III. Leopold Lampelsdorfer (boy soprano/Tölzer Knabenchor), Thomas Riede (alto), Jan Hübner (tenor), Georg Lutz (bass), Musicalische Compagney, les hautboïstes de prusse (director, Georg Corall),
Holger Eichhorn (musical director). Querstand 1238 (1 CD)

Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio) is a Christmas-holiday music standard in German-speaking countries, similar to our holiday favourites like ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’, ‘Silent Night’ and even, in more classical circles, George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Accordingly, musicians often approach these ‘sacred’ pieces with trepidation. Should they even attempt to re-record these classics? Or, should they leave them be, allowing the listening public to keep worshiping at their same tried and true recordings (which are usually decades old)?

In the end, musicians tend to opt for the two safest routes: either, they leave these ‘sacred’ pieces be, admitting defeat to a finicky and demanding public who would likely reject their renditions; or, they record them in the safest route possible, modelling their version on the previous best-selling style and interpretation.

For the Querstand’s label release of the World Premiere Recording, Part I-III of Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium (Querstand/Codaex: VKJK 1238), the collective Musicalische Compagney rejected these two safe routes. Instead, they opted  for the boldest approach possible. Under the guidance of musicologist Holger Eichhorn as musical director, singers Leopold Lampelsdorfer (boy soprano of the Tölz Boys’ Choir), Thomas Riede (alto), Jan Huebner (tenor) and Georg Lutz (bass) and instrumentalists from les hautboїstes de prusse recorded a truly unique interpretation of this German Christmas classic in September 2012.mc-logo

For 76 minutes, these musicians threw caution to the wind, approaching Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium with complete abandon. As such, they accomplished the impossible. By rejecting its ‘sacred’ status, they approached this work as they would any other less publicly ‘sacred’ work. They disregarded its public status in favour of revealing the true nature and beauty of the work, letting it shine through with new and vibrant historical performance practice interpretations.

Needless to say, this abandonment of public opinion and corresponding novel interpretations did not go unnoticed by the German public nor its music critics. Rather, as Michael Wersin wrote on 21 December 2012 in Rondo Magazine (a German Classical and Jazz music magazine), it caused quite the ‘small sensation’ shortly before the Christmas holiday, with the record selling out completely in less than four months. Those who had not scored a copy by the 2012 Christmas season had to wait until a new batch of recordings were released the following year.

Recorded in Berlin, the musicians wanted to offer something new, refreshing today’s dialogue on this piece. One of the ways they did this was to exclude the use of a choir, which is typically used in other recordings of this piece. The German audience took notice with Neue Züricher Zeitung reporting on 14 December 2012 that such choices as this ‘remind[ed the critic]…a bit of the pioneer days of historical performance practice’, labeling the Musicalische Compagney and its director Holger Eichhorn as ‘…pioneers indeed’.

In early music, one of the few places musicians can still experiment is the number of musicians who perform a piece. Of course, sometimes it is successful when musicians experiment with this; other times, it goes disastrously wrong. For Eichhorn’s experimental choice of a male solo quartet with boy soprano, to perform the recitatives and arias as well as the choruses and chorales the oratorio was remarkably refreshing. It certainly made me sit up and take notice on my first listen through of the recording.

The result of this ‘Weihnachtsoratorium experiment’ was pure sacred bliss. The voices shone through the music, emerging rather than bombarding the listener – which is one of the greatest differences between true early music practitioners and those from classical music who merely foray (or rather stomp) into the genre, making excessive noise to make their presence known. Instead, the musicians in this recording took into account the true nature of the work: recognising, after all, that it is a religious oratorio.

And although some critics, like Peter Uehling Großmeister of the Berliner Zeitung may feel that the work’s vocals ended up ‘…a bit pale…’, no one can deny the effect of such a choice. Should not the voices sound heavenly rather than if they shriek from the depths of hell?

Eichhorn continues this approach to the instrumentalists, never overburdening the delicacy of Bach’s work. les hautboïstes de prusse took it even further, dedicating themselves to fastidious articulation, which beautifully support the Bach’s text. Their use of historical reeds, which lacked the modern-day enhanced ‘heart’ in the reeds’ cores, elicited a true sensory experience. Going against today’s homogenous, mainstream Bach recordings, les hautboïstes de prusse brings the listener closer to their – and Bach’s – intensions. Clearly, the instrumentalists are more than simply accompanists in this recording. They are equal collaborators with their own voices.

The result is simply sublime: a beautifully balanced and certainly poignant recording which will surely become the new tried and true Weihnachtsoratorium recording. It is a unique textual interpretation, which kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time. This recording of Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium breaks today’s recording barriers, enticing today’s audience to experience this time-loved piece in a whole new and exciting way. Finally, its well-worn competitors can be replaced with a breath of fresh air.

By UWA PhD candidate Patricia Alessi. For more on her research and writing, visit her research profile or follow her on twitter at @Patricia_Alessi .

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