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Listening to: Bach, Weihnachtsoratorium (Harnoncourt)

Bach Christmas Oratorio Harnoncourt

I came late to this work (in life, as I’d like to discuss here… and yes, I know it’s about a month after Christmas now). I remember my mom loving it and playing it to mark the season when I was growing up, but I always thought the passions were too much like opera, another genre I came to late (and, in the case of opera, very incompletely). I grew up in a household that deeply valued Baroque music, so the Bach family, Händel, Vivaldi and Corelli, even Buxtehude, Telemann and Biber were names and sounds that were familiar to me from a young age. My parents had a large record collection, and I loved sticking my nose into the beautifully printed German liner notes, replete with pictures, lyrics, translations and descriptions of the works, composers and times.

What I did like about the oratorios were the chorales, choruses and arias; what I really struggled with were the recitatives. I imagine most kids would find those frustrating and pointless. (Well, I’m still not sure I actually like them :) I also thought Bach’s passions were very long (in the days of slower, more ‘classicist’ performances and LP records, they could easily fill 4-6 complete records, so that’s how many flips/changes… let’s see…). For a German child growing up in a Lutheran tradition, the chorales were mostly easily recognizable: our hymn books in church were full of them. Admittedly, this is a privilege few, if any, other churches have – many of our common liturgical hymns were written by composers like Bach or Buxtehude; their lyrics often written by Luther or other great poetic masters of the early standardized German language of the 16th and 17th centuries.

I learned about period performance relatively early. I think my mom’s active interest in Baroque music led her to discover early practitioners like Nikolaus Harnoncourt from Austria and Sir Neville Marriner from the UK. And, though the debate then ranged quite far, both in academic and enthusiast circles, I think that anyone with a good pair of ears must have known even back then that period performance was reviving these works, breathing new life into them. When I was old enough to buy my own CDs, whatever classical music I acquired was purchased according to the “buy it once only, and buy the best performance available at that time” principle, coupled closely to a strong preference for period performances. It’s worked very well for me. And Harnoncourt has been a fascinating conductor to follow: from Bach to Beethoven to Schubert to Brahms (great Brahms) to Dvorák back to Bach. I’d have lots to say about each of these.

What I like about this new Weihnachtsoratorium is often related to language. I think the fact that the soloists and choir members are, for the most part, German-speaking, makes such a tremendous difference to the recording of these works. They are, after all, re-tellings of various New Testament narratives, and so benefit from accent-free, native singers. I also enjoy, I should say, recordings by others – Masaaki Suzuki, for example, and his Japanese choir, and of course John Eliot Gardiner, whose Bach recordings I enjoy for hundreds of reasons (and yet language isn’t often one of them). The native singers combine well with Harnoncourt’s beautifully shaped melodies in the arias and choruses. Particularly in the arias, the lyrics and music really merge – often for the first time in my own listening history – into complete ‘songs,’ songs that I can follow and whose meaning I can take in as I listen, without my eyes being glued to a lyric sheet of Baroque era German while I try to follow the music.

In the end, there’s something about how Harnoncourt thinks about this music and shapes it when conducting that makes his passions, in my opinion, superior to most others I’ve heard. There’s something deeply, immensely satisfying about it and I’m not sure I have appropriate words for it.

I only read Harnoncourt’s Baroque Music Today: Music as Speech a few years ago and remember being struck by the insights and learning a lot. The liner notes here are a little thin, at least in the edition I have, which seems to be a North American ‘cheap’ edition of the CD (I saw one in Germany whose booklet was several times the size so I’m assuming I have a budget version). But they’re thoughtful and insightful nonetheless and shed more light on the complexities of determining how Bach would have wanted these pieces performed from copies of the score and various musician parts (written out by copyists under Bach’s supervision).

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