Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Recordings

Schumann Symphonies, influenced by song

John Eliot Gardiner's Schumann series with the London Symphony Orchestra, demonstrate the how Schumann’s Lieder and piano music influenced his approach to symphonic form and his interests in music drama.

Unusual and beautiful: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the music of Raminta Šerkšnytė

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conducts the music of Raminta Šerkšnytė with the Kremerata Baltica, in this new release from Deutsche Grammophon.

Diana Damrau sings Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder on Erato

“How weary we are of wandering/Is this perhaps death?” These closing words of ‘Im Abendrot’, the last of Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder, and the composer’s own valedictory work, now seem unusually poignant since they stand as an epitaph to Mariss Jansons’s final Strauss recording.

Vaughan Williams Symphonies 3 & 4 from Hyperion

Latest in the highly acclaimed Hyperion series of Ralph Vaughan Williams symphonies, Symphonies no 3 and 4, with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, recorded in late 2018 after a series of live performances.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with the Thomanerchor and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig

This Accentus release of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, recorded live on 15/16th December 2018 at St. Thomas’s Church Leipzig, takes the listener ‘back to Bach’, so to speak.

Retrospect Opera's new recording of Ethel Smyth's Fête Galante

Writing in April 1923 in The Bookman, of which he was editor, about Ethel Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate (1913-14) - the most frequently performed of the composer’s own operas during her lifetime - Rodney Bennett reflected on the principal reasons for the general neglect of Smyth’s music in her native land.

A compelling new recording of Bruckner's early Requiem

The death of his friend and mentor Franz Seiler, notary at the St Florian monastery to which he had returned as a teaching assistant in 1845, was the immediate circumstance which led the 24-year-old Anton Bruckner to compose his first large-scale sacred work: the Requiem in D minor for soloists, choir, organ continuo and orchestra, which he completed on 14th March 1849.

Emmerich Kálmán: Ein Herbstmanöver

Brilliant Emmerich Kálmán’s Ein Herbstmanöver from the Stadttheater, Giessen in 2018, conducted by Michael Hofstetter now on Oehms Classics, in a performing version by Balázs Kovalik.

Liszt Petrarca Sonnets complete – Andrè Schuen, Daniel Heide

An ambitious new series focusing on the songs of Franz Liszt, starting with all three versions of the Tre Sonetti del Petrarca, (Petrarca Sonnets), S.270a, S.270b and S.161 with Andrè Schuen and Daniel Heide for Avi-music.de.

Une soirée chez Berlioz – lyrical rarities, on Berlioz’s own guitar

Une soirée chez Berlioz – an evening with Berlioz, songs for voice, piano and guitar, with Stéphanie D’Oustrac, Thibaut Roussel (guitar), and Tanguy de Williencourt (piano).

A Baroque Christmas from Harmonia Mundi

A baroque Christmas from Harmonia Mundi, this year’s offering in their acclaimed Christmas series. Great value for money - four CDs of music so good that it shouldn’t be saved just for Christmas. The prize here, though is the Pastorale de Noël by Marc-Antoine Charpentier with Ensemble Correspondances, with Sébastien Daucé, highly acclaimed on its first release just a few years ago.

Christmas at St George’s Windsor

Christmas at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, with the Choir of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, James Vivian, organist and conductor. New from Hyperion, this continues their series of previous recordings with this Choir. The College of St George, founded in 1348, is unusual in that it is a Royal Peculiar, a parish under the direct jurisdiction of the monarch, rather than the diocese.

From Darkness into Light: Antoine Brumel’s Complete Lamentations of Jeremiah for Good Friday

As a musicologist, particularly when working in the field of historical documents, one is always hoping to discover that unknown score, letter, household account book - even a shopping list or scribbled memo - which will reveal much about the composition, performance or context of a musical work which might otherwise remain embedded within or behind the inscrutable walls of the past.

Time and Space: Songs by Holst and Vaughan Williams

New from Albion, Time and Space: Songs by Holst and Vaughan Williams, with Mary Bevan, Roderick Williams, William Vann and Jack Liebeck, highlighting the close personal relationship between the two composers.

Puccini's Le Willis: a fine new recording from Opera Rara

The 23-year-old Giacomo Puccini was still three months from the end of his studies at the Conservatoire in Milan when, in April 1883, he spotted an announcement of a competition for a one-act opera in Il teatro illustrato, a journal was published by Edoardo Sonzogno, the Italian publisher of Bizet's Carmen.

Liszt: O lieb! – Lieder and Mélodie

O Lieb! presents the lieder of Franz Liszt with a distinctive spark from Cyrille Dubois and Tristan Raës, from Aparté. Though young, Dubois is very highly regarded. His voice has a luminous natural elegance, ideal for the Mélodie and French operatic repertoire he does so well. With these settings by Franz Liszt, Dubois brings out the refinement and sophistication of Liszt’s approach to song.

The Academy of Ancient Music's superb recording of Handel's Brockes-Passion

The Academy of Ancient Music’s new release of Handel’s Brockes-Passion - recorded around the AAM's live performance at the Barbican Hall on the 300th anniversary of the first performance in 1719 - combines serious musicological and historical scholarship with vibrant musicianship and artistry.

Vaughan Williams: The Song of Love

From Albion, The Song of Love featuring songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams, with Kitty Whately, Roderick Williams and pianist William Vann. Albion is unique, treasured by Vaughan Williams devotees for rarely heard repertoire from the composer’s vast output, so don’t expect mass market commercial product. Albion recordings often highlight new perspectives.

A new recording of Henze’s Das Floß der Medusa

Henze’s Das Floß der Medusa is in some ways a work with a troubled and turbulent history. It is defined by the time in which it was written – 1968 – a period of student protest throughout central Europe. Its first performance was abandoned because the Hamburg chorus refused to perform under the Red Flag which had been placed on stage; and Henze himself decided he wouldn’t conduct it at all after police stormed the concert hall to remove protesters, among them the librettist Ernst Schnabel.

Berthold Goldschmidt: Beatrice Cenci, Bregenzer Festspiele

Berthold Goldschmidt’s Beatrice Cenci at last on DVD, from the Bregenzer Festspiele in 2018, with Johannes Debus conducting the Wiener Symphoniker, directed by Johannes Erath, and sung in German translation.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Recordings

Accentus ACC 30469
31 Dec 2019

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with the Thomanerchor and Gewandhausorchester Leipzig

This Accentus release of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, recorded live on 15/16th December 2018 at St. Thomas’s Church Leipzig, takes the listener ‘back to Bach’, so to speak.

J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio BWV 248

Thomanerchor Leipzig, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Gotthold Schwarz (conductor), Dorothee Mields (soprano), Elvira Bill (alto), Patrick Grahl (tenor, Evangelist), Markus Schäfer (tenor), Klaus Häger (bass)

Accentus ACC 30469 [CD]

$29.38  Click to buy

Performed by the Leipzig Thomanerchor and the Gewandhaus Orchestra it brings together two of the city’s most venerable musical institutions, under the baton of Gotthold Schwarz - the seventeenth Thomaskantor to have held that position since Bach’s own tenure from 1723 until his death in 1750. Schwarz was inaugurated as Thomaskantor on 20th August 2016. The sacred music of Bach forms the core of the choir’s repertory, and each week they are joined in St Thomas’s Church by members of the Gewandhausorchester for performances of Bach’s cantatas, continuing a collaboration which began at least as early as 1835 when Felix Mendelssohn, as Music Director, programmed Bach’s music.

This Accentus recording disc is not the first time that we been treated to Bach from the ‘home team’. In 2012, Georg Christoph Biller (Kantor from 1992 to 2015) conducted the same forces (with soloists Martin Petzold (Evangelist), Paul Bernewitz and Friedrich Praetorius (treble), Ingeborg Danz (alto), Christoph Genz (tenor), and Panajotis Iconomou (bass)) for the German label, Rondeau . But, Schwarz’s account of the Christmas Oratorio is certainly a compelling one.

In the CD liner booklet, Katharina Rosenkranz raises the question of ‘whether [the Christmas Oratorio] is an oratorio in the real sense of the word’, since ‘the work consists of six separate cantatas that were intended for different Sundays and holidays during the Christmas festivities of the year in which they were composed’. But, though the cantatas - Bach’s last major contribution to the repertoire of German Lutheran liturgical music - were first heard in 1734/35 in Leipzig’s two main churches, St Thomas and St Nicolas, over twelve days, it does not seem fair to suggest that the work lacks a continuous biblical narrative. Bach would surely have been familiar with Passion settings the parts of which were intended or adapted for presentation on separate days over Holy Week or Lent. And, his title specifies ‘Oratorium’, denoting a tradition of gospel narration through the voice of an Evangelist and various interlocutors, such as is represented by his own Passion settings. He titled each cantata a ‘part’, suggesting that while it might stand on its own terms it forms part of a larger whole.

Moreover, Rosenkranz asserts that, unlike the Passion narrative, the ‘biblical narrative of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus contains little dramatic potential’. I’m not sure that Handel would have agreed, not that Gospel writers were averse to indulging in narrative gestures of a deliberately dramatic nature. But, I think the point being made is that these are meditative cantatas. Rosenkranz offers a summary of each cantata (presented in German, English and French), not just identifying key narrative and musical features, but also the juxtaposition which is the ‘essence’ of each cantata: lowliness and majesty in the first, man and god in the third, for example. Whatever the spiritual message, though, for this listener it is the sheer vibrancy, colour and energy of the singing and playing here that is most absorbing and exciting.

The opening chorus “Jauchzet, frohlocket” - kick-started by exultant timpani, sharply etched trumpets flourishes and rejoicing, racing flutes, oboes and strings - is brilliantly colourful, and the individual instrumental lines retain their fine definition with the entry of the warm and heart-stirring choral ensemble. Bach’s music was originally written for the opening movement of Cantata BWV 214, which begins, “Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschauet, Trompeten, Klingende Saiten, erfüllet die Luft!” (Sound, ye drums now! Resound, ye trumpets! Resonant strings fill the air!) and the choric instructions are as just as apt and satisfyingly fulfilled here. The bright tone of the trumpets and robust strike of the timpani are vivid presences throughout the sequence; horns and oboes add terrific pungency and punch to the opening chorus of Part IV, “Fallt mit Danken”, which are balanced by the sumptuousness of the choral ensemble and the litheness of the vocal lines. But, there are instrumental episodes of touching affection and stillness too. The theme of the Sinfonia which opens Part II may originally have embodied the enticements of the disreputable ‘Wollust’ who tempts Hercules in the secular Cantata BWV 213, but the gentle lilt of flute and oboe in dialogue with strings is no less effective or enchanting a lullaby for the infant Jesus, one which Schwarz paces fluently and which captures the spirit of pastoral joy and ease.

Patrick Grahl has a fairly light tenor, but it is an expressive voice and the appealing tone engages and consoles the listener. Grahl rises to the peaks of the Evangelist’s recitatives cleanly and comfortably. Accurate and nuanced, the sometimes twisting, angular lines are focused and well-tuned, and the declamation is heightened or quietened as is appropriate.

Markus Schäfer sings the tenor arias with greater intensity of colour and urgency, at times bringing an almost operatic ‘drama’ to the unfolding action. Schäfer demonstrates fine nimbleness in the running lines of “Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet” in Part II, and the aria is sweetened by the traverse flute solo which has the purity of an angel’s cry. I particularly enjoyed “Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben” in Part IV, in which the two solo violins strive forward in ever-inventive dialogue and Schäfer’s energy, accuracy and focus never flag, creating a compulsive sweep which draws in the listener. It’s no surprise that towards the end of the aria the double bass joins in, too, with vigour and heartiness: the aria has a powerfully communicative ‘human’ quality.

In the many arias for alto, Elvira Bill makes a very strong impression. In Part 1, the relaxed clarity of the vocal line in “Nun wird mein liebster Bräutigam” is beautifully complemented by the reedy fluidity of the oboe d’amore and the fullness of the low, light-footed continuo - light and shade, as it were: the aria seems literally to shine with light and grace. The sweet tone and unaffected sustained notes at the start of “Schlafe, mein Liebster, genieße der Ruh” in Part II bear no hint of the afore-mentioned Wollust’s sinister entreaties: here, Schwarz again shows good judgement of the tempo and there is both decorous vocal ornamentation and lovely playing by the oboes d’amore and da caccia, with gentle string doubling. One of the highlights of the sequence is Part III’s “Schließe, mein Herze, dies selige Wunder” in which a deeply expressive violin solo is complemented by sensitive organ and cello continuo; here, Bill’s plea, “Enclose, my heart, these blessed miracles fast within your faith!”, is unmannered and truly affecting, combining wonder, passion and peace. The text is conveyed with similar expressive impact in the recitative at the end of Part V, “Wo ist der neugeborne König der Jüden?” (How bright, how clear must your radiance be, Beloved Jesus!), which shines with joy.

Bass Klaus Häger puts much feeling into the words and his recitatives are powerful. I found Häger a little under-powered and lacking in brightness of tone in comparison to the trumpet solo in “Großer Herr, o starker König” in Part I, but his recitative at the start of Part IV is arresting: “Immanuel, o süßes Wort!” (Emmanuel, O sweet word!). And, in Part V the long, and sometimes quite high, lines of the bass aria, “Erleucht auch meine finistre Sinnen”, allow the lightness and lyricism of his bass to make their mark, aided by a fine obbligato oboe solo. The alternating groupings and colours of the duet for bass and soprano in Part III, “Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen”, are well-crafted by Schwarz, with the organ switching between roles - first a voice in the counterpoint, then providing foundation steps - and soprano Dorothee Mields exhibiting a purity and cleanness of tone to complement Häger’s more grainy bass.

Mields provides another of the recording’s highlights, “Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen” in Part IV, where her silky soprano is exquisitely embroidered by the echoes of the solo oboe and chorister Clemens Sommerfeld, and Thomasorganist Ullrich Böhme makes a very expressive contribution. The light staccato of the continuo bass in Part VI’s “Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen” is a perfect foundation for the airy syncopated twists and turns above of soprano, oboe d’amore and violin, as Mields asserts God’s unassailable power. The questions and exclamations of the soprano, alto and tenor soloists, with violin obbligato, in the Part V trio, “Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen?”, are urgent and dramatic. This is superb music-making: listening, I found myself smiling and reflecting that Bach doesn’t come much better than this.

The chorales are solid and warm, with the gutsy boys’ voices resplendent at the top: Schwarz, and the Accentus engineers, achieve a good balance between the choir, the doubling instruments and the organ. The majesty of “Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein”, which closes Part 1, as the choir alternates with stirring trumpets and timpani, conveys certainty and conviction. “Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht” in Part II is brisk and forthright, but Schwarz effects a well-modulated slowing and diminution at the close. The boys’ voices often add vigour to the choruses as in “Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen” in Part III where, alongside trumpets, timpani and bass, the trebles’ energised lines strive upwards, surging with an optimism which blossoms in the contrapuntal dynamism of “Lasset uns nun gehen gen Bethlehem und die Geschichte”.

Schwarz’s inclination is to keep the chorales moving; fermatas are observed with a light touch and the resulting momentum is often most effective, as in “Dein Glanz all Finsternis verzehrt” in Part V, where the repetition of the first vocal phrase runs on into the final phrase, thereby observing the elision in the text and establishing the certainty of salvation: ‘Doch, sobald dein Gnadenstrahl/ In denselben nur wird blinken, Wird es voller Sonnen dünken.’ (Yet, as soon as the rays of your mercy/ Only gleam within there/ It will seem filled with sunlight.)

‘Wir singen dir in deinem Heer/ aus aller Kraft, Lob, Preis und Ehr’ (We sing to you in your host with all our might: “Praise, honour and glory”) proclaims the chorale which closes Part II. And, sing and play with all their might, and insight, the Thomanerchor and Gewandhaus Orchestra certainly do. This recording has been a welcome festive companion for this listener, but it will bring much pleasure at any time of the year.

Claire Seymour

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):