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Hyperion Records

CDA68031/2 - Bach: Christmas Oratorio
Adoration of the Shepherds (detail) by Angelo Bronzino (1503-1572)
Magyar Nemzeti Galéria, Budapest / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: January 2013
Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Produced by Stephen Johns
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: November 2013
DISCID: 0C12A124 A610F01D
Total duration: 151 minutes 46 seconds


'For me nothing is more majestic, or better conveys the sheer joy of Christmas, than the opening chorus of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. And it sounds especially well on a new Hyperion offering conducted by the hugely talented Stephen Layton, with the drums and brass of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment hammering out one of Bach’s greatest celebratory melodies. And then the light, bright tones of The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge enter, calling upon us all to ‘Rejoice, exult… Praise what the Most High this day has done’. It’s impossible to resist' (The Mail on Sunday) » More

'The soloist line-up is in general superior both technically and interpretatively, especially the ever-incisive James Gilchrist … the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment sounds thoroughly at home and Stephen Layton conducts with care and expertise' (Gramophone) » More

'The superb quartet of soloists yields not a demisemiquaver to the competition. In a work incontestably smitten with the alto voice, Iestyn Davies triumphs, dependably warm and expressively supple. Matthew Brook's resplendent all-guns-blazing 'Grosser Herr' is gilded by David Blackadder's nimble trumpet and, throughout, James Gilchrist's relaxed and lyrical Evangelist maintains the narrative flow … crisp choral singing and exquisite accompaniment, this is a decidedly welcome addition to anyone's Christmas stocking' (BBC Music Magazine) » More

'The fact that the music seems to course through the very veins of the singers and players, not to mention Layton himself, is one of the qualities that make this Christmas Oratorio such a telling, affecting and inspiring experience, judiciously balancing jubilation, devotion and contemplation' (The Daily Telegraph) » More

'A wonderful piece … lovely new recording. You can't go wrong with this' (Classic FM)

'Layton and his orchestral players begin with tremendous verve, but there is infinite variety in this seasoned Bach conductor's trajectory of the six cantatas, with the lively, mixed-voice Trinity choir—singing in excellent German—and elite British soloists … James Gilchrist's Evangelist here could hardly be bettered among his compatriots, incisively declaimed and subtly nuanced' (The Sunday Times) » More

'Brazen and celebratory, the opening of J S Bach’s Christmas Oratorio blazes into life in a Cambridge chapel setting, the acoustic spacious, the choristers and players filling it with joy. There is much here that is deeply affecting as well as exhilarating (trumpets to the fore) and with some fine solo singing (including from Iestyn Davies and James Gilchrist) there is much to wonder at. With a fine, lively recording that positions exactly all the participants into a recognisable acoustic, there is much to captivate and stimulate' (Hi-Fi Critic)

'Cet Oratorio de noël (avec l'OAE de nouveau) renoue avec l’art du tableau, l’aisance et la lumière du premier … L’élite des chœurs britanniques est toujours à l'œuvre : ce «Ehre sei dir Gott» où pas un mot n’est voilé par l’élan vif, tout en rebond, «sur les pointes», n'a pas grand-chose à envier au Monteverdi Choir (Archiv, Diapason d'or). Sa texture formidablement claire nous fait douter d'entendre vraiment les presque quarante voix listées dans le livret … Sonnez hautbois, résonnez musettes, accourez, hédonistes' (Diapason, France) » More

Christmas Oratorio
Am ersten Weihnachtsfeiertage
Am zweiten Weihnachtsfeiertage
Am dritten Weihnachtsfeiertage
Am Feste der Beschneidung Christi
Am Sonntage nach Neujahr
Am Epiphaniasfeste

Stephen Layton and the combined forces of Trinity College Choir Cambridge, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and an impressive line-up of soloists present a joyous rendition of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. This six-part masterpiece covers the events of the nativity to Epiphany and beautifully evokes the pastoral atmosphere of the Gospels which is such an important part of the Christmas liturgy.

James Gilchrist has become one of the most admired Evangelists performing today, his limpid, flexible tone and great musicianship bringing the stories thrillingly to life.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, designated by Alfred Dürr as one of the pinnacles of world musical literature, was composed for the Christmas church festival at Leipzig in 1734. This included not only Christmas Day and the two following days, but also the Feast of the Circumcision, the Sunday after New Year and the Feast of the Epiphany. Thus it spread over into the New Year of 1735. Although Bach performed the Christmas Oratorio in six separate parts, it nevertheless forms a complete and unified work. This unity is strengthened, furthermore, by Bach’s use, surely intentional, of the same melody for the first chorale in Part One as for that incorporated into the closing number of the sixth and last part.

While each of the six parts of the Oratorio is in the form of a typical Leipzig church cantata of the period—that is to say, containing recitatives, arias, choruses and chorales—there are fundamental differences. One of the features that distinguished an oratorio from a cantata was the use of a narrator to relate a linked sequence of events. In this way a story could be presented progressively in a way that a cantata need not, and usually does not, follow. Bach himself used the word ‘oratorio’ in connection with this work where the Evangelist tells the story in biblical narrative, while arias, duets and trios for the soloists, choruses for the choir and chorales for the congregation to join in reflect upon the events which occur.

The text is probably by Christian Friedrich Henrici, better known by his pseudonym, Picander. Picander was Bach’s collaborator at Leipzig on many occasions, but authorship in this instance remains in doubt since the text is not included in his collected poems. The six sections recount in sequence the Coming of Christ, the Nativity, the visit of the shepherds, the adoration, the circumcision, and, finally, the visit of the Wise Men, the treachery of Herod and the flight into Egypt. The words, apart from those of the chorales, are based on the Lutheran bible and both complement and illustrate the appointed Gospels for the day. The Gospels drawn upon are those of St Luke and St Matthew, and it is at least possible that Bach himself played a part in selecting the passages which he set to music.

Bach’s own score of the Christmas Oratorio has come down to us and, although it does not contain his signature, the date 1734 appears at the end of all but one of the six sections. A printed text also survives which offers further information concerning the work’s performance: ‘Oratorio performed over Christmas in the two chief churches in Leipzig.’ Section One could be heard ‘Early morning at St Nicholas’ and ‘In the afternoon at St Thomas’; then on the following day the pattern was reversed, and so on.

Perhaps one of the Baroque procedures hardest for us to understand nowadays is the apparent ease with which composers were able to adapt their music from a secular to a liturgical or quasi-liturgical context. The process in music is known as ‘parody’, at which both Bach and Picander were consummate masters. The two secular compositions from which Bach borrowed most frequently for the Christmas Oratorio are the cantatas Tönet, ihr Pauken! (BWV214) and Lasst uns sorgen, lasst uns wachen (BWV213), sometimes known as Herkules auf dem Scheidewege (‘Hercules at the crossroads’). Both works had been composed in the previous year (1733). Adjustments which occur between the primary and secondary settings go well beyond mere alterations to the libretto, and include changes of key, of vocal register and of instrumentation. The propriety of the secondary setting is such that we cannot dismiss the idea that Bach had conceived in his mind an ultimate sacred destination for the music when working on his initial versions. Although in the busy circumstances of his own life economy of effort would almost certainly have influenced his working methods, the fact remains that, in his parodies, he reveals a deep penetration of the texts. Some commentators have shown a disinclination to regard Bach’s original versions with the same enthusiasm which they demonstrate towards the parodies; perhaps it would be fairer to assume that in Bach’s mind the music had a universal application and that, widely divergent though the sources and contexts were, they nevertheless had a common meeting ground.

The opening chorus and both the arias of Part One of the Christmas Oratorio are parodies of music contained in the secular cantatas BWV214 and BWV213. The ‘da capo’ chorus in D major is generously scored for three trumpets, drums, two flutes, two oboes, strings and continuo. The next three numbers are concerned with Advent. The Evangelist’s simple recitative is followed by a contemplative one for alto with two oboes d’amore and continuo. The first of the arias, in A minor, is also for alto, accompanied by unison oboe d’amore and violin with continuo. A single chorale verse with flutes, oboes and strings follows. Its melody, ‘Herzlich tut mich verlangen’, is the same as that which Bach used for the concluding chorus of the sixth and last part of the Oratorio.

In the following number the Evangelist introduces the Christmas story in simple recitative. It leads to a meditative movement in G major in which the chorale melody—‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’, sung by sopranos and treated lyrically as arioso, with two oboes d’amore and continuo—alternates with passages of recitative sung by bass. The declamatory ‘da capo’ aria in D major is for bass with trumpet, flute doubling the first violins, strings and continuo. The concluding chorale is a setting of the melody ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her’ accompanied in splendour by the three trumpets and drums, with flutes, oboes and strings strengthening the vocal strands.

Part Two of the Christmas Oratorio, performed on the second day of Christmas, concerns the announcement to the shepherds of the Birth of Christ. It begins with a Sinfonia in G major whose 12/8 metre underlines the pastoral context of the cantata. It is scored for two flutes, two oboes d’amore, two oboes da caccia, strings and continuo. Albert Schweitzer plausibly interpreted the piece as a serenade by antiphonal angelic choirs (flutes and strings) and shepherds (oboes). The tripartite form of the movement, in which the instrumental groupings remain more or less constant, consists of an exposition, development and varied recapitulation.

A short recitative, in which the Evangelist sets the scene, leads to a G major chorale. This is a verse of Johann Rist’s hymn ‘Ermuntre dich, mein schwacher Geist’ (1641) with its associated melody. In the following two recitatives a soprano, with string accompaniment, sings the words of the angel, and a bass with four-part oboe choir makes reference to God’s promise to Abraham.

The E minor tenor aria with obbligato flute and basso continuo is a parody of an alto aria in B minor which Bach had included in a ‘dramma per musica’ (BWV214) for the birthday of Maria Josepha, Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony in 1733. In a simple recitative the Evangelist declaims the angel’s words leading to the second chorale movement. This is a verse of Paul Gerhardt’s hymn ‘Schaut, schaut, was ist für Wunder’ (1667) set to the melody ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her’. The four vocal strands are accompanied by full ‘colla parte’ instrumental support.

A bass recitative with four-part oboe texture is a preparation, both textual and instrumental, for the celebrated alto aria ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’. This extended ‘da capo’ slumber song in C major is accompanied by four-part oboe choir and, like the earlier aria, is a parody of one in a ‘dramma per musica’, this time an aria in B flat major for soprano and strings from BWV213, celebrating the birthday of Crown Prince Friedrich Christian of Saxony in 1733.

The following simple recitative for the Evangelist is a preface to the large-scale G major chorus with full instrumental participation. Alfred Dürr has remarked that the form of this significant movement is derived from the motet in which each of its three sections is founded upon a different musical principle: ground bass, pedal and canon. The simple bass recitative leads to the concluding movement. This is a verse of another hymn by Paul Gerhardt, ‘Wir singen dir, Immanuel’ (1656), once again set to the melody ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her’. Here, though, Bach achieves a pleasing symmetry by introducing material from the opening Sinfonia, punctuating each line of the verse and by returning to its 12/8 metre.

Part Three, for the Third Day of Christmas, rounds off the first half of the Oratorio. From the anchor key of G major in Part Two the Third Part returns to the scoring and D major key of Part One, creating a distinct tripartite cohesion. The opening chorus is a parody of the concluding number of BWV214 and is scored for three trumpets, drums, two flutes, two oboes, two oboes d’amore, strings and continuo. Its proportions are comparatively modest and its structure bipartite rather than ‘da capo’.

The three following sections are interlinked. A simple tenor recitative (Evangelist) leads to a short turba chorus for the shepherds with two flutes and two oboes d’amore doubling the soprano and alto strands respectively, viola doubling the tenor strand, and basso continuo. This in turn gives way to a bass recitative accompanied by two flutes. The first of three chorales in four-part texture leads to a ‘da capo’ aria (duet) in A major for soprano and bass with two oboes d’amore and continuo. The piece is a parody of an alto and tenor duet in BWV213. Its brightly coloured key, its warm woodwind textures and its dance-like character lend the piece irresistible charm.

A simple tenor recitative (Evangelist) prepares the ground for the second aria of Part Three. This is in B minor and scored for alto voice accompanied by an elaborate violin solo with continuo. It is probably the only newly composed aria in the Oratorio and one over which, judging by its many corrections, Bach took great pains. A short alto recitative with flutes and continuo precedes the second chorale of Part Three. A simple recitative (Evangelist) provides a brief link between the second and third chorales following which a reprise of the opening chorus, identically scored, concludes the Third Part.

Part Four of the Christmas Oratorio was written for performance on New Year’s Day, and the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. This cantata is framed by choral movements in F major. The opening ‘da capo’ chorus, a parody of the initial chorus of BWV213, features two horns, two oboes, strings and continuo. They provide a distinctive instrumental colouring not found elsewhere in the Oratorio. The text almost throughout the Fourth Part is a reflection and a meditation on the naming of Jesus.

Following the chorus a simple tenor recitative (Evangelist) leads to a subtly constructed accompanied bass recitative. This is interrupted by an eight-bar passage in which the sopranos sing part of a verse of Johann Rist’s hymn ‘Jesu, du mein liebstes Leben’ to a melody, probably of Bach’s own composition, while the bass contributes to a duet texture. The verse of Rist’s hymn is resumed and completed in a similar manner after the intervening C major aria for soprano, echo soprano, oboe and basso continuo. This aria, in which the oboe echoes both itself and the voices, derives from the seventeenth-century practice of spiritual dialogue between God and the Soul. Both arias of Part Four are parodies of music from BWV213.

The second aria is for tenor. This ‘da capo’ piece in D minor with its vigorous two-strand violin accompaniment provides a striking contrast with the ‘echo’ aria. The melody of the concluding chorale, like the previous one, may be of Bach’s own composition but here it is set within a colourful orchestral framework provided by the full instrumentarium.

Bach’s instrumentation for Part Five of the Christmas Oratorio is on a more modest scale than in the other cantatas of the work. The opening ‘da capo’ chorus in A major is accompanied by two oboes d’amore, strings and continuo. Its intimate, dance-like character, playful rhythm and radiantly convivial key imbue the piece with instant and enduring appeal. Its text is one of thanksgiving while the remaining movements of Part Five are concerned with the Wise Men from the Orient, the Star in the East and the anxiety of King Herod. Following the chorus a simple recitative (Evangelist) leads to a Chorus of the Wise Men with two inserted passages of accompanied recitative for alto. A single chorale verse guides us to a bass aria in F sharp minor with oboe d’amore obbligato. Bach’s revision of this movement, originally for soprano and flute, from the secular Cantata BWV215 is extensive. Two simple recitatives for the Evangelist framing an accompanied recitative for alto with strings lead to a terzetto in B minor for soprano, alto and tenor with violin solo and continuo. The neatness of Bach’s autograph is perhaps an indication that the piece was a parody yet, as Alfred Dürr remarks, ‘it is in this very movement that the text is most effectively set’. A short recitative for alto accompanied by two oboes d’amore returns us to the key of A major in preparation for the closing chorale. This is set in simple four-part harmonization.

The sixth and concluding part of Bach’s Oratorio was written for Epiphany and concludes the story of the Wise Men from the East, begun in Part Five. Apart from the Evangelist’s recitatives and the chorale ‘Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier’ it has been established that the music for Part Six was taken over from one of Bach’s lost church cantatas. For the opening chorus Bach assembled an imposing instrumental arsenal of three trumpets, drums, two oboes, two oboes d’amore, strings and continuo. Only the flutes, additionally required for the opening chorus of Part One, are absent. The movement is of great splendour and complexity of construction, beginning with an extended orchestral introduction, and with chorally fugal flanking sections and a middle section of freer canonic structure.

Two ensuing sections of recitative, the first for tenor (Evangelist) and bass (Herod), the second for soprano with strings, lead to the first aria. This is in A major for soprano with oboe d’amore and strings. Its character is dance-like and its structure somewhat akin to a concerto movement. Two simple recitatives for the Evangelist frame a chorale verse. These are followed by a more extended tenor recitative with two oboes d’amore and continuo. These instruments further provide the accompaniment of the B minor tenor aria which ensues. Like the previous aria this, too, has the character and scheme of a concerto movement. A final recitative for a quartet of voices leads to the concluding movement. It is a generously laid out D major chorale in which the soprano strand declaims the hymn melody line by line with homophonic support from the alto, tenor and bass strands. All is suffused with a joyful orchestral concertante dominated by the first trumpet.

Nicholas Anderson © 2013

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