In the Christian yearly liturgical calendar, we are in Advent. The basic story is the coming of an Anointed One, and the dramatic story of divine revealing, for better and for worse; and composers across long centuries have certainly taken this occasion to write more bright and lasting music than we could actually exhaust, even in a single Advent season. Who could quibble if someone said that JS Bach's Christmas Oratorio ... actually a set of six Advent cantatas ... was always and ever, among the best of our legacy musical celebrations?
Here Chailly in Leipzig completes a recent trio of new JS Bach releases. The other two were the St. Matthew Passion, and the Brandenburg Concertos, let loose in sequence. Both earlier sets were very fine, and could even be considered among the top choices for either the passion or the concertos. But to my ears right now, as good as the previous two releases from Leipzig were, this Christmas Oratorio sweep up all prizes.
Like the other two releases, this oratorio is extremely stylish, despite being played on modern instruments. I doubt that anybody who liked the oratorio much will complain about not having gut strings and small bore woodwinds or brass at hand. Leipzig players blow away all the cobwebs in our historical performance attics; with the sheer brilliance, depth, and brilliance of the music remaining - Center Stage. Spot lit. No passing whiff of dusty associations calls attention to the continuo and ripieno manners, as anything other than a means of making fine music. Thanks to these alert Leipzig players, we hear the oratorio as a vivid act of real, daily life ... no museum diorama connotations. The joy and magic of this old work are brought right into the current century; but without betraying a live, colorful, and dare I call it fun?, baroque style.
The chorus is the Dresden Chamber Choir. Kudos to Jorg Genslein their director, and many thanks to each chorus member for singing his or her heart out. The chorus is small enough to draw us in, in the more intimate chorales, and big enough to impress in the narrative and declamatory music. Weigh the lift and light of their opening celebration, and I think you would be hard pressed to find a choir that sounded more jubilant, or more precise.
Soprano soloist is Carolyn Sampson, and her early music performance credentials need no defense. Wiebke Lehmkuhl is alto soloist. Her name is new to me; but she matches the vocal high standards, as well as the heartfelt performance involvement, of the other singers and players. The tenor Evangelist is Martin Lattke, another new name. He is the real deal, all pure silver vocally, and incapable of even one boring or lackluster note as he tells his familiar Advent story. Wolfram Lattke takes the tenor arias, capturing their varied moments, both as story and as music. His aria, Frohe hirten, takes off, nearly lighter than air, and singing-dancing with frosty snowflaked gleam and effervescence. That moment alone will make lots of others among a very distinguished cast seem more earthbound than before. Konstantin Wolff is bass. He can be gruff in a simple, hearty way; or reflective, or lively as the moments demand - and his technique is never in question. His aria, Grosse Herr, is completely purged of awful Puritanical fears, in favor of sheer jubilance; a purer praise would be hard to imagine, vocally.
The larger flow across all six Advent cantatas is beautifully managed among all singers and players. For once those typical Bach chorales do not seem like oddly archaic Lutheran ritual reminders from a far lost time in past baroque centuries; but instead come right into the ongoing musical mix. The chorales draw a listener into All Things Advent, all still moving, all still breathing. Old-fashioned background hints of traditional German musical stiffness in playing and singing JS Bach are gone, gone, gone ... and that in Leipzig, the Cantor's home city, no less.
Some similar welcome is expressed in very lovely ways by the continuo players who manage to expressively transform their tonal lights to shine in adornment just so, on the effortless flow of shifting musical atmospheres without making us change rooms completely.
Kudos to that continuo group then. Christian Giger, cello. Christian Okert, double bass. David Petersen, bassoon. Michael Schonheit, chamber organ I. Choir soloist Maria Stosiek is just holly red berry perfect, in her small but beautiful work in the famous, familiar Echo aria, Flosst mein Heiland.
Advent for me has always meant Handel's Messiah, first and foremost among typical Advent vocal or choral works, generously supplemented and enhanced by all the carols traditional and modern, and further scaled upwards by the very great Bach oratorio for the season. Chailly here finally recalibrates my existing Advent musical balances. As when JS Bach actually came to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA - and so continues so joyously, right to the latest, breaking Advent moments.
Herrscher des Himmels. Wowie, zowie, and yes.
Don't be afraid of this one, folks; it is simply beautiful, resonant Advent drama. Go Tell It On The Mountains... over the hills, and everywhere.