Bach Christmas Oratorio
Rainer Johannes Homburg, cond; Elisabeth Wimmer (sop); Elvira Bill (alt); Andreas Post (Evangelist, ten); Dominic Große (bs); Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben; Trompetenensemble Wolfgang Bauer; Handel’s Company
MDG 902 2183-6 (2 SACDs: 146:33)
This recording of the Christmas Oratorio is the latest in a series of collaborations between the MDG label and the Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben. The choir is a children’s and youth ensemble, the top parts boy trebles, the lower voices young adults, up to the age of 25. The choir is affiliated to the Stuttgart Protestant Church and is modelled on the Thomanerchor in Leipzig and the Kreuzchor in Dresden. They are accompanied by Handel’s Company, which seems to be a scratch period band, founded by the choir’s conductor, Rainer Johannes Homburg, and by the Trompetenensemble Wolfgang Bauer, who have a great deal of solo work in the piece.
On the face of it, an all-male youth ensemble could hardly be more authentic for Bach’s choral music, but the sound is a very long way from what we have become accustomed to in recent years. The chorus is large, with perhaps 60 members in the liner photographs, so much larger than what Bach was writing for. The singers are clearly well trained, and have the natural advantage of native German fluency. But the sound is sometimes diffuse, and the chorus can wander slightly under pitch at the ends of long phrases. That said, Homburg does not make any concessions for their youth, especially with his tempos, which are in the mainstream for modern period performance, and even faster at times. The work is very much about the chorus, rather than the soloists, so it is a good choice to show off the skills of the Hymnus-Chorknaben.
The smallish orchestra—28 players—is well-balanced against the choir. The playing is at the stricter end of the period spectrum, the main advantage a solid string tone, the main disadvantage the disappointingly flaccid timpani. Wolfgang Bauer is an impressive trumpeter. He presumably plays an instrument with vent holes, given the precision of his intonation, but that’s no crime. The recording was made in a large Protestant church, the Evangelische Christuskirche Stuttgart, and the warm but uncluttered resonance is particularly sympathetic to the precise but harmonic-rich string tone. The vocal soloists are spread across the front channels of the surround array, but the chorus and orchestra are grouped in the center for a sound picture that emphasizes homogeneity over detail.
Among the four soloists, the standout is tenor Andreas Post as the Evangelist. His tone is light and his delivery conversational, which is ideal for his many recitatives. Bass Dominic Große has an attractive tone, although he is sometimes wobbly. Soprano Elisabeth Wimmer and alto Elvira Bill both bring an operatic dimension in their tone and expression. Given the all-male chorus, it was perhaps a missed opportunity not to include treble soloists. Another missed opportunity is the echo effect in the Cantata IV aria “Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen,” where the echo soloist, Anselm Wegner (who sings beautifully) is positioned in the middle of the chorus, rather than finding a more interesting position in the surround array.
Despite the authenticity of boy choristers, the chorus itself makes this a marginal choice among Christmas Oratorios. That comes down to a matter of taste, although the occasional lack of the precision in the choral singing should be noted. Otherwise, this is an attractive offering, with the soloists and orchestra performing to a high professional standard, and the warm church acoustic providing a suitably festive atmosphere throughout.
This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:3