Holger Eichhorn: Bach's Chrismas Oratorio


Holger Eichhorn and Musicalische Compagney, Johann Sebastian Bach, Christmas Oratorio I-III (Querstand VKJK 1238, 2012).

The intention of this CD is to reproduce accurately the performing forces available to J. S. Bach in December 1734. This means, notably, that only four singers were employed for this recording, all of them male, for both the solo and choir parts: Leopold Lampelsdorfer (boy soprano with the Bad Tölz Boys’ Choir, admirably coached by Gerhard Schmidt-Gaden), Thomas Riede, Jan Hübner, and Georg Lutz. According to conductor Eichhorn, this grouping is a historic “first.”

Further participants include a pre-existing double-reed ensemble, “Les hautboïstes de prusse,” consisting of Georg Corall, Renate Hildebrand, Eva Grießhaber, and Nikolaus M. Broda (on various instruments including oboe, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia, tenor oboe, and bassoon). The string group was headed by Irina Kisselova, the excellent first trumpeter was Helen Barsby, and the organ continuo player was Torsten Übelhör. Whereas each part was played by only one instrument, Eichhorn for reasons of his own made an exception with the violins, with two to a part for Violin I and II. The recording was made on three days in September 2012.

Holger Eichhorn’s booklet notes make clear that his intentions were based on precepts voiced by Baroque theorists such as Walther, Mattheson, and C. P. E. Bach. Briefly: (1) Instrumental declamation should follow textual declamation closely, so that it is possible for a listener to imagine the text even when the singer is silent. (2) Judicious decorative ornaments should not be eschewed, and recitatives should not be performed metronomically, but with a certain sense of rubato that allows the intended meaning to become still clearer. (3) The vocal choir should be comprised of soloists or “Concertisten”, one to a part, because the complex writing is often similar to that of the solo arias; it is a question not of quantity (of singers to a part), but of quality. In Bach’s day boys matured into men at a later age than today, so that the presence in this recording of a boy soprano whose voice is strong enough is rare indeed, a true advantage. In some of Bach’s works a second vocal choir of “Ripienisten” exists in certain situations such as turbae interjections, but these are not to be found in the present work. (4) Parts IV-VI are omitted from this recording. Parts I-III represent the report of the birth of Christ and in Eichhorn’s opinion are therefore justified as the “true Christmas Oratorio”. Their key framework (D-G-D) also reflects such homogeneity, while Part IV’s key of F shows the separation between the manger scene and subsequent developments beginning with the name-giving in the temple. Furthermore, the flutes seem to symbolize angels; they are present in Parts I-III but absent from Parts IV-VI. Finally, there are three chorales each in Parts I-III, but only one or two in each of the others. (5) A sound balance as in chamber music was striven for. Bach’s instrumentation calls for separate “choirs,” that is, separate groups of instruments and voices: singing choir, brass-timpani choir, woodwind choir, string choir (not a large orchestra with many players per part), and organ. The fact that Eichhorn doubled Violins I and II is probably in keeping with Bach’s own requirement that the first and second violin parts should be performed by two or three players each, as voiced in his famous Entwurff of August 23, 1730 to the Leipzig city council. We shall return to this document below. (6) A special case was made of the oboe ensemble’s reeds being prepared after the example of the few surviving historical examples. Whereas modern double reeds have a thicker “heart” in their middle to produce a dark and stable sound, baroque reeds are uniformly thin, producing a more flexible and brighter tone and thus clearer articulation of vowels and consonants.

With this recording, Eichhorn has brilliantly attained his wish for a chamber-music sound. All four vocal soloists are impeccable, with excellent diction and superior musical understanding. It is impossible to single one out ahead of the others. Furthermore, the recording quality is transparent, and the text can be clearly understood.

Nevertheless, it must have been difficult to put this recording together. Despite its excellence, problems of balance do occasionally occur. Let me mention a few places that I noticed while listening. For example, in No.1, although its bar accents every two bars are excellent, the timpani sound pervades the entire church acoustics, and at the end of its long rolls (for example in bar 8) it covers up the bass notes. In the tutti sections of No. 1 (such as bar 124 ff.), the tenor part is often not very audible (although it can clearly be heard in similar passages of No. 22). In No. 4, the violin which is supposed to double the solo oboe d’amore is not audible. In No. 7, the fugal soprano entry in bars 12-14 is scarcely audible. In No. 10, the oboe da caccia I is often too soft. In No. 18, when the oboe group enters in bars 5 ff., its sound overpowers the important sixteenth-note triplets in the bass part. Finally, in No. 31, the solo violin sounds thin and the basso continuo is louder than necessary; furthermore, there is not much differentiation between piano and forte.

This writer, also a trumpeter, must give first Baroque trumpeter Helen Barsby a great compliment for her sensitive playing. If in No. 8, however, she were to look at the singer’s text in bars 17 and 21, which corresponds to her own part in bars 3 and 7, she would never have breathed on the first repeat before the final note of bar 7 in the middle of the word “star-ker.” She does some nice ornamentation the second time around (notably in bars 50 and 75-76). Her long trills in bar 60 of No. 24I/II are also first-rate.

Concerning the “heartless” oboe reeds I beg to differ. It must be said that this knowledge is not new and has been followed for a number of years at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis; furthermore, a bright sound can also be attained on Baroque reeds with a thicker heart.

I do not know why the organist sometimes leaves out some of the figured bass figures (such as in No. 2, on the first beat of bars 5, 10, and 15) or why he adds a non-existent figure 9 (in No. 4, on the first beat of bar 29).

In No. 16, Eichhorn copies Bach’s mistake and gives the text of this recitative to the evangelist (tenor). In actual fact, it is a continuation of the instructions given by the angel (soprano) that began in the earlier recitative No. 13, telling that the Christ child can be found in diapers, lying in a manger.

In my opinion it is too bad that the flute, which in No. 19 doubles the solo alto part of this aria at the upper octave, has been omitted.

The preceding list of caveats should in no way prejudice a listener’s appreciation and enjoyment of this highly interesting recording. We might facetiously remark that Eichhorn has perhaps not gone far enough in his attempt to reproduce Bach’s original situation. If he were really to duplicate the conditions which Bach was forced to accept in 1730, his performers would not have played so beautifully! As Bach wrote in the Entwurff (my translation), “modesty prevents me from truthfully mentioning the qualities and musical knowledge [of the performers]; nevertheless it should be taken into account that some are of retirement age, and others are not in such shape as they should be.” Eichhorn’s musicians are young, enthusiastic, and in great shape! The entire recording was performed with impeccable intonation, energy, and drive. Highly recommended.

-- Edward H. Tarr