Weihnachtsoratorium BWV 248, by J.S. Bach, performances with Rilling/Stuttgart Bach Collegium, Harry Christopher and the Sixteen, Richter, Münchinger, and Thomas/Thomaskirche
This Christmas season, I listened to multiple performances of both the Weihnachtsoratorium, and the Messiah, so see also my comments on the Messiah. The Weihnachtsoratorium is an under-performed piece in the United States and Britain. Oddly, both Bach, and Händel (the composer of the Messiah) were born about 30 miles from each other in the same area of Germany, about a year apart. Their individual paths were as different as imaginable, and their music also. Händel composed almost entirely opera, and as mentioned, the Messiah is as close to an operatic piece as possible, though without acting. Bach’s piece was more intended for the church, for solemnity, for pastoral reflection, for the teaching of the Christmas story. Yet, omitting the flamboyancy of Händel, it is the work of an absolute genius, dare I say, a far greater genius than even Händel. The piece begins with a Pauken (kettledrum) solo. Unglaublich (unbelievable)!!! I had to listen to the opening 5-10 times and review the score the first time I heard that. Drums were not used as a solo instrument of the melody until the 20th century, and to think that Bach invented that. Regarding tradition, it is sad that in English-speaking countries, the far more worthy Weihnachtsoratorium goes essentially unheard, and we have to endure the Messiah year in and year out. True, the Messiah was Händel’s greatest piece, and it truly is worthy of greatness but is still surpassed by the majesty and genius of this humble piece by Bach.
Regarding the individual performances, I preferred the Richter performance above all for its interpretation of a piece fitting the accompanying words. Münchinger is very close in conducting style to Richter, and also is a worthy listening. Rilling is typically a superb Bach conductor but tends here to focus more on style than substance in the piece, though I’d still rate his performance highly. The Christophers have a more intimate performance, but well done. The Thomas performance is at the church where the Weihnachtsoratorium was first performed, and used children for the soprano parts, which I tend to dislike even though the original performances probably used children. I believe that Bach would have used adults if allowed by the school. All of the performances are worthy to listen to.