The Christmas Oratorio is generally put in second place to the Matthäus- and Johannes-Passionen because of its lack of theatricality and relatively less complex structure. Its expressive style is certainly more direct and puts greater emphasis on its soloists. This is probably why it is usually the less successful of many Bach vocal work collections that have gone well with only fair soloists. To make things worse, Karl Richter’s recording – which has introduced this work to many listeners since it has been released – has a legendary group of soloists, including Fritz Wunderlich, whose singing in this repertoire has never been matched by any tenor before or after him. By a large margin.
This evening, all soloists could not stand the shadow of such formidable competition. But this is hardly their fault. Now when it comes to Erwin Ortner’s faults, it is debatable if we are talking about culpa in eligendo or culpa in vigilando. He clearly sees this work as music for religious service and opts for an undramatic, very comfortably paced and phrased approach in which you can hear the choral texts without difficulty. He uses a large chorus (around 50) for a small orchestra (six first violins) in the Vienna Philharmonic’s home hall. If Mr. Ortner has made a good decision, this was the extremely smooth-toned Arnold Schoenberg, the pellucid and homogeneous sound of which never overwhelming and very transparent. His orchestra, however, is on the scrawny side (the violin solo particularly problematic, especially in what regards intonation) and, in order to cope with the choral forces, produced abrasive sounds throughout. I understand that the point was to avoid exuberance and make it straight to the point – but, if this is religious music, the point is CONVEYING the point to the congregation. In this sense, the performance was not really communicative, especially in the sixth cantata, which requires far more relief. As a matter of fact, the whole performance lacked relief, in the sense of definition, contour, of conveying a point. For instance, the only point I could see in the flaccid Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen was that it was an example of the “matten Gesänge” from the text… I don’t mean by this that every performance should sound like Diego Fasolis’s or John Eliot Gardiner’s: more considerate tempi are not incompatible with firm accents and clear rhythms but they do require a high level of polish, since you do have the time to notice how wrong things can go, and excitement cannot be used as an excuse here.
In theory, Sunhae Im is a more than plausible Bach soprano: she has very long breath, is rhythmically accurate and is pure-toned. However, judging from this evening, there is a problem of tessitura, to start with. She seems to be singing in the less congenial part of her voice most of the time, does not project very well and can sound more vinegary than bell-toned sometimes The idea of giving her some passages usually sung by the chorus proved to be ineffective. Here the Richter recording serves an example of what kind of singer one needs to perform this in a larger hall (we are talking about Gundula Janowitz, but those were different days…). In any case, my personal reference here is Claron McFadden in Gardiner’s DVD, who sings with unusual fervor and truly “speaks” her words to the audience. I myself find an inspiration in the confident and defiant way she says that God is on her side in Nur ein Wink von seiner Händen. God seemed to be unwilling to give a helping hand this evening.
Although Wiebke Lehmkuhl’s voice too is on the light side, her performance only grew in strength after an uninspired Schlafe, mein Liebster, in which she was sabotaged by the lack of atmosphere and fast tempo chosen by the conductor (which brought an almost yodeling quality to her singing) and the memory of Christa Ludwig’s immensely touching performance for Richter, in which the sense of maternal care and of awe for her savior are perfectly balanced (if she had recorded only this aria, she would still be remembered as a very important singer). In any case, Lehmkuhl’s Schließe, mein Herze was beautifully and sensitively sung, even if the violin solo was hard to digest.
Werner Güra was an extremely sweet-toned Evangelist, but lacked tone in his arias, where his flexibility was otherwise admirable. Since I’ve last saw Florian Boesch, his voice has become poorer in overtones in both ends of his range. I don’t know if he was trying to out-Klaus Mertens Klaus Mertens, but this only had the effect of making him sometimes hard to hear and quite rough-toned in his higher reaches. Other than this, he too has excellent divisions and, when not hard pressed, the tonal quality is still very pleasant.