Two new Christmas Oratorio recordings in time for Christmas, and both from forces that give regular concert presentations of the piece, one at St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig, and the other at St John’s Smith Square in London. As such they are not greatly challenging to ‘normal’ expectations, but then that is the point: what you get here are good, sound performances that will not upset anyone and will surely give pleasure to most who hear them.
I mean that about not upsetting anyone: not so long ago a recording of this music by the 84-strong Leipzig Thomanerchor and the Gewandhaus Orchestra would have stayed many a buying hand, but things are different now. Germany has become the place where ‘modern-instrument’ orchestras play Baroque music best; and, except for a slight blandness in the continuo, the once-stodgy Gewandhaus’s grasp of current Baroque stylistic orthodoxy under Thomascantor Biller seems total, while their technical ease (particularly in the brass) is a genuine enhancement. As for the Thomanerchor, the relevance to listeners of its tradition as ‘Bach’s choir’ is probably more romantic than realistic but the thrill of it is still there and can perhaps be detected in a recording at least partly made at live concerts in St Thomas’s. What we can say is that they have a typically fruity German boy sound, never seem like 84 singers (in a good way), and, despite strong underlying discipline, seem able to enjoy the more joyous moments with true enthusiasm. Except for the tenderly comforting Ingeborg Danz, the soloists (including two boy sopranos) are adequate without offering any particular insights.
Older, though not by all that much, are the 38 mixed voices of Trinity College Choir, again very well trained, especially in matters of firm text enunciation. They are less raw in the lower voices, more focused overall than the Thomaners and more agile, too, in numbers such as ‘Ehre sei Gott’ or the opening of Part 5. The soloist line-up here is in general superior both technically and interpretatively, especially the ever-incisive James Gilchrist. Newcomer Katherine Watson’s fresh-voiced sound is a world away from the Leipzig boys but lestyn Davies’s impressive messa di voce in ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’ is not the start of a performance to match the protective warmth of Danz. If not quite at its best, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment sounds thoroughly at home (David Blackadder gives a very suave trumpet solo in ‘Grosser Herr’), and Stephen Layton conducts with care and expertise. But of the two recordings it is somehow the Leipzig one that has that little bit more heart.