Johann Sebastian Bach: Weihnachts-Oratorium, BWV 248
Katja Stuber (soprano), Elionor Martínez (soprano, angel), Jeanne Lefort (soprano, echo), Raffaele Pe (countertenor), Martin Platz (tenor, evangelist), Thomas Stimmel (bass), Marco Scavazza (bass, Herod), Pedro Estevan (timpani), Michael Behringer (organ), Luca Guglielmi (harpsichord), La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Lluís Vilamajó (chorus master), Le Concert des Nations, Jordi Savall (conductor)
Live recording: Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona, Spain (December 17-18, 2019) – 143’51
Alia Vox ASVA9940 (Distributed by PIAS) – Booklet in French, English and German
Jordi Savall, a conductor best known for his advocacy of Early Music, leads La Capella Reial de Catalunya and Le Concert des Nations in a live performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Captured in two days of recording in Spain last year, this album brings brilliance and transparency to a long, sometimes difficult work.
Stitched together from six cantatas, including significant reworkings of secular material, the Christmas Oratorio is long (64 tracks on two CDs), difficult to sing and play, and an endurance test for listeners. In spite of this, Savall’s leadership breathes vitality and deep-in-your-bones feeling into this huge project, and the soloists and musicians, alike, strike and retain the highest standard of excellence.
One of the many factors making this such an appealing production is the unfailing lucidity and emotional focus of the soloists. Munich-born Thomas Stimmel, who has played bass-baritone roles in Mozart and Wagner operas among others, offers a supple, clean, and convincing voice to the abundant bass solos throughout the Oratorio. His voice is a river of emotional intelligence, never harsh and stentorian. Listen to his aria in Part I, “Grosser Herr” (“Great Lord”, Track 8) for a masterclass in elegant vocal style.
Martin Platz, a permanent member of the Nuremberg National Theater, shines in a number of arias and as the evangelist, a kind of “good news” narrator who provides the recitative. His voice is clear and light, delivering a sense of harmonious stability, even when responding to the sinuous melodic line of a recorder obbligato, as in the Part II aria, “Frohe Hirten” (“Joyful Shepherds”, Track 15). The golden, bell-like tones of soprano Katja Stuber’s voice add brilliance to her single aria in Part VI, “Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen” (“A mere wave of His hand”, Track 57). One of the most delightful selections from the Oratorio is the “echo” duet, “Flösst, mein Heiland” (“Ah, my Savior”, Track 39) in which Stuber’s lines are mirrored by soprano Jeanne Lefort.
But the most surprising and wonderful element is the addition of countertenor Raffaele Pe as alto. A lapsed alto myself, I usually prefer the female voice in this role, but Pe’s translucent singing carried me away. The texture and timbre of his disciplined voice adds a light but substantive touch, never shrill and with low notes that are rich but not imposing (see “Schlafe, mein Liebster”(“Sleep, my darling”, Track 19). The leavening effect of Pe’s voice provides an unexpected airiness to the overall impact of the Oratorio. This and the incorporation of some early instruments, such as the oboe d’amore, gave the ensemble such an airy nap [that] one could imagine the performers floating a few inches from the floor. And yet all this was accomplished while conveying the depth of Bach’s musical and spiritual vision, and soaring through clouds of difficulty with disarming ease.
Any one of the cantatas which make up the Oratorio would be a satisfying selection, in and of itself, for a church service or concert. At the conclusion of two consecutive days of live recording, the musicians and soloists sound as energized at the end, with drum rolls and piercing trumpets, as they were with the choral opening. We listeners are sustained throughout by a seldom equaled level of loveliness. Bach may have stitched this great work together with bits and pieces of old compositions, but great musicianship and creative choices in this case have resulted in a seamless living masterpiece.