Johann Sebastian Bach
with Gundula Janowitz, soprano; Christa Ludwig, alto; Fritz Wunderlich: tenor; Franz Crass: bass
Karl Richter, conductor
Deutsche Grammophon, 1965 (2007)
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio conducted by Karl Richter is perhaps the most “classical” and celebrated recording of the Christmas work par excellence, written in 1734 and heard for the first time in six sections between Christmas Day 1734 and Epiphany 1735. This is one of three works that Bach called “oratorios”, the other two being the Easter Oratorio and the Ascension Oratorio, both written in 1735, and principally consisting of parodies of Cantatas BWV 213-215 and of other works.
Christmas Oratorio: Conduction
Karl Richter has perfectly understood and rendered the spirit of the Christmas Oratorio, avoiding the temptation to emphasize too much the “operatic” character that Bach so willingly gave to his work and opting for a quietly joyous performance that allowed him to give prominence to the highest meaning of sacred music. The Christmas Oratorio inspires reconciliation and devotion and an almost childish tenderness pervades its beautiful melodies, giving a distinctive and original trait to this work without diminishing its solemnity and sacredness, features that actually are ennobled by this sensitive approach.
Christmas Oratorio: Chorus and Orchestra
Richter’s conduction is not the only reason why this Christmas Oratorio is so fine as chorus, orchestra and the four soloists are equally remarkable. The Münchner Bach-Chor cannot be described in any other way than “a choir of angels”, while the Münchner Bach-Orchester is made up by valuable members of undisputable skill and talent, with a mention of honour for the blazing trumpet, which stresses many important passages with its ringing sound, and for the wonderful strings.
Christmas Oratorio: Soloists
The four soloists do not require presentation. Soprano Gundula Janowitz makes the best use of her silvery and enchanting voice and easily draws the listener’s attention with the angelic beauty of her singing, to which the warm, intense singing of alto Christa Ludwig is the perfect echo. The latter is always flawless, but her best moment is perhaps Schlafe, mein Liebster, where she is riveting for the softness of her voice.
Glorious tenor Fritz Wunderlich illumines his arias with the wonderful timbre of his sumptuous voice, which is so flexible and pure that allows him to do everything he wants and, thanks to its innate elegance, allows him to convey all the feelings typical of a Christmas Oratorio. Bass Franz Crass, for his part, offers a virile and heartfelt performance with his rough sweetness.
In the end, all the musical forces are in a state of grace in this recording of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and only with difficulty it will be possible to find another recording that will equal this one.