Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Choir perform Bach's Weihnachts-Oratorium BWV 248 on Erato, (p) 1996. I remember picking this recording up at discount in a record store in Cleveland, OH, near a favorite Chinese restaurant a friend and I frequented, in an area known as "Coventry." I was purchasing this after enjoying many a release in Koopman's prodigious cantata cycle. To wit, I wasn't sure what Bach's Christmas work was all about. Expert Christoph Wolff tells us:
Bach's CO is a remarkable exception among the composer's major vocal works, inasmuch as it was conceived to be performed in two different churches on six different feastdays over a two-week period. The year, 1734, the place, Leipzig. Over two hours, 20 minutes of music. Makes you feel good it wasn't supposed to all be enjoyed at once. In fact, Bach was re-using a lot of material he had already written in secular cantatas for this sacred purpose. The work, 64 complete movements, is organized as six separate cantatas. The musical material is typical "Bach Cantata," alternating choruses, instrumental lines, recitative, and solo arias. Especially fetching is track 6 from the second CD, Ich Will Nur Dir zu Ehren Leben. Two wonderful solo violin lines, a foot-tapping tempo, and great singing from tenor Chrisoph Prégardien. Different in quality, but nontheless beautiful, is track 29 from the first CD, a duet for soprano and bass, with rich contribution from ABO's double-reeds. Both CDs are filled with quality music from Bach, but why doesn't this work bill high, as does his Matthew Passion, with critics? I find enjoying Bach's (or any composers') large works more difficult, than say, a single instrumental concerto, or a single cantata movement. Multiply the fact that I, personally, don't follow the words, and instead, try to enjoy many vocal works on the sheer value of their sound and color. It speaks well, then, that Bach was able to take already high-quality music, and re-use it here, despite the change in context. Yet, was his form to blame for the lack of interest in this work? For me, perhaps, as a work, it presents so many ideas, themes, and motives. Except for familiar keys, it can be a large work to appreciate. But in pieces, Koopman's recording is likely a good choice for celebrating Christmas by way of Bach.