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Dip Your Ears, No. 105 (Chailly's Bach)

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Christmas Oratorio BWV 248,
R.Chailly / Leipzig Gewandhaus / Dresdner Kammerchor
(released on December 7th)
An imaginary* conversation with Riccardo Chailly about the Christmas Oratorio should include this bit:

Maestro Chailly—recording Bach with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, isn’t that a little daring, even anachronistic, at a time when seemingly all orchestral baroque recordings are made by HIP ensembles.

“What exactly do you mean, with the ‘hip’?”

Oh, ‘Historically Informed Performance’… when an orchestra or chamb—

“Ah, but you must be kidding me. The Gewandhaus Orchestra, they play Bach every Sunday for the last two hundred years in the Thomaskirche. They accompany the Thomanerchoir who have been singing with Bach himself. My players have an unparalleled ease and artlessness of playing baroque music.”

But they’re playing on modern instruments…

“Yes. Of course, why do you ask? The Gewandhaus is not a period instrument baroque ensemble, of course. But you ask about ‘historically informed’, no?. And I suggest that you would be hard pressed to find any ensemble that plays so naturally this music. Perhaps what you get is a ‘Third Way’ Bach performance style. I think they sound marvelous and the music, you can tell it is in their blood. I hope you can hear the recordings when they come out.”

Well, the recordings have come out, one by one, and the Christmas Oratorio, the last of the three, (preceding it were the Brandenburg Concertos, St. Matthew Passion; the St. John Passion will join maybe next year and the Mass in B minor is slated for 2014) hits the market just in time for the Advent and Christmas season. The Brandenburg Concertos is a tight, quicksilverish performance that veers, unsteadily, between big-band and PI-band that skates through Bach with great immediacy and ease—but ultimately not quite my cup of tea. The Matthew Passion and the Christmas Oratorio are more naturally suited to the orchestral treatment… I’ve skimmed the Matthew Passion recording with interest (and every intention to dig deeper into, perhaps around Easter). The six-partite Christmas Oratorio from 1734 (composed for the services starting at Christmas Day and ending with Epiphany) has a certain glorious ring to it, an earthy festiveness. That’s in part due to the instrumentation and well possibly because of the sources from which Bach parodied most of it; his secular cantatas.

I have my personal favorites for the Christmas Oratorio—Karl Richter (Archiv, 1961) and Helmut Rilling (Hänssler, 1999)—but Chailly’s is the kind of recording you pop into the player and without the need or wish to compare immediately jumps at you, delights, convinces. In an ideal sense, this is truly a hybrid not just of a smallish ensemble (I’m guesstimating something shy of three dozen players and the same in singers) with a big sound but also one that combines the comfortable feel of old with the transparency of new. Mostly, it packs an irresistible punch and a tremendously lively choir that does jubilating in jubilantly-nourished style. (Not like some one-to-the-part choruses where I admire the voices but can’t help assuming that they’re probably hungry.) All the singers, four out of five of which I don’t know, are very good, natural, unaffected, the supreme Carolyn Sampson (Angel, indeed!) among them as primus inter pares. Anyway, a smashing success not for individual instances or moments but the overall impression. It has probably just become the recording I’ll now reach for, before any other.

* not entirely imaginary, actually—much, if not most of this, is grafted from my interview with Riccardo Chailly for WETA.

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