"The first image shown, of a lovely Baroque Church nestled amongst snow covered hills and pine trees, will grab you. The interior of the Collegiate Church at Waldhausen in Austria, where this recording was made between Summer and Autumn in 1981, will finish you off. It is lovingly bedecked in traditional Baroque Christmas ornamentation under a high barrel-vaulted roof, the interior including eight side chapels and an achingly beautiful decorated chancel. If you aren't filled with the traditional Christmas spirit after this display, you never will be. As the camera reveals the Concentus Musicus Wien and (especially) Conductor Harnoncourt dressed in what I can only describe as faux-Priestly garb, you may suppress a grin. With their black jackets covering fluffy white turtle-necks, the entire assemblage looks like they've gone seriously retro in what appears like a sea of Nehru-jackets! The incongruity of it provides some unintended mirth before the music begins.
The performance is vintage Harnoncourt. A trail-blazing advocate of authentic performance practice, his approach may not please purists. Apparently, some controversial aspects of this performance (choices in instrumentation, in voices and disposition of the parts) have made for a certain defensiveness on the part of the Conductor. In an interview, he asserts that conveying the spirit of the work is his primary concern. As this recording is nearly 25 years old, it hardly seems fair to compare it to today's more rigorous notion of "period performance". The Orchestra sounds fine (although there are some intonation problems amongst the period horns) in excellent DTS 5.1 sound; the Tolzer boys choir are quite good and Tenor Peter Schreier is superb, if not at his peak here! Bass Robert Holl is also excellent. It is the totality of this DVD, the beautiful recreation of a traditional Tyrolean Christmas as well as Bach's magnificent score played lovingly and well that makes it worth owning.
In one of those marketing glitches that seems to bedevil the Classical Music industry these days, John Eliot Gardiner's DVD performance of this work has been released simultaneously with this one. Experience suggests that it will halve the sales of each, as few will buy both. I have not seen Mr. Gardiner's DVD - there is an excellent review of it by Scott Morrison here at Amazon - but I have treasured his CD recording of it for years. Thus the dilemma. I will probably purchase both, but I'm used to being penniless. You, however, might like to have some money left over for a few minor items. Like food!
Another great recording Bach & Harnoncourt.
Francisco Yanez Calvino | Santiago de Compostela, GALIZA, Spain. | 11/29/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Finally I have watched and listened Christmas Oratorio conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, one of the performances I always wanted to know of this piece, not very easy to perform correctly as it shows the fact of there're not many convincing versions available.
The DVD is part of the Unitel legacy that Deutsche Grammophon is releasing (together with other jewel like Mahler's Symphonies conducted by Bernstein). It's clearly in the style of other Unitel's films and it tells us about the `70s & `80s way of shooting and editing. In this sense the film is based on takes from the concert, very well done, and some other images of the Christmas time: Holy Family, the Virgin, Trees, Stars, snow, some pictures of the church... All this put together with the music makes it more atmospheric and linked to what the music celebrates, that's Christmas time.
As an early `80s recording, the playing on authentic instruments and the style it's not the very clean, clear, fresh and prefect we can listen today to quite all the authentic instruments ensembles: Musika Antiqua Köln, Collegium Gent, Collegium Bach Japan, Café Zimmermann... or even the own Concentus Musicus Wienn nowadays, as you can listen in their last recordings: Bach's Passions, Mozart's Requiem, Haydn's Schöpfung, Haydn's Paris Symphonies... I really think Concentus Musicus has grown very much in their technique and musicality in the last decade and even this performance is very, very good I think they could make it even better today. In this recording I find specially wonderfully played the woodwinds, beautifully taken by the sound engineers.
What it's wonderful is watching Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducting and singing quite all the cantatas, following very, very concentrated the full performance. I really find him and Reinhard Goebel as the most inspiring Bach conductors and he shows himself in this DVD as the great Bach knower and conductor he is.
The voices are very good, specially Peter Schreier, that great singer, even I would prefer women's voices because of the immature style of the children for some parts of the cantatas. Of course this very complex option has the chance of recreating a period in which children used to sang this parts as the woman were sometimes apart of the Christian liturgy. Anyway, in the present times I think this Oratorio is much more sung by women, something I like more. The choirs are very good and the general value of the sung parts is very good but not outstanding like it could be Rene Jacobs version for Harmonia Mundi, in which we can listen really glorious voices, like the own Andreas Scholl as countertenor or the wonderful Dorothea Röschmann. Two years ago I've listened live in my hometown Herreweghe conducting this Oratorio with female voices too and again I think they do it little better than children even if the children are so great singers like these.
As I wrote above, the visual part is very interesting and well directed, even the costumes are a little kitsch, dressing everyone like priests. Anyway, I think it could be the best performance available on DVD today, as I don't use to like completely Gardiner's Bach recordings, even his recordings are very good too.
If I have to chose one recording of Christmas Oratorio I have no doubts about Rene Jacobs' one for Harmonia Mundi, an outstanding version. "
Release of a Classic
David A. Kipfmiller | 11/28/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This is Bach's Christmas Oratorio led by Nikolaus Harnoncourt with Concentus Musicus Wien and the Tölzner Knabenchor. This is the edition that I believe was shown on PBS in 1982.
Harnoncourt is noted for his presentations of Bach's music using the sort of ensemble that Bach himself would have used in the churches he served. You can expect period instruments and the use of boy's choir and soloists. The pure and clean sound of a boy soprano is, to my thinking, more ethereal than that of a mature women soprano. Though it may lack the power of the adult voice, it is more true to the sound that would have been heard in Bach's day.
I have looked for this recording over the years and am happy it has now been released finally in November, 2005. A classic and highly recommended."
Allan Supak | Bozeman, Montana USA | 03/01/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Bach must have heard it thus. What a delight to both view and hear these Baroque masterpieces sung by an outstanding Bravarian Boy's choir, the Toelzer Knabenchor. Absolutely 'candy' both for the eye and ear."
The best performance ever!
B. Tiziano | Italy | 02/15/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I watched this version of the Christmas Oratorio completely captured by it! I am a great Boychoir fan, and I have to say that all of the little musicians in this edition are superb. The soloists are so perfect to make your spine tingle;and so professional too!No difference between them and the "grown up" professionals. Harnoncourt is in complete controll of the orchestra at every bar (as you can see in the very numerous closeups on him).Also the sound is great thanks to the original instruments;you'll be able to see the very rare "oboe da caccia"(a sort of English horn with metal end), and you will hear the purity of sound of the natural trumpets and the wooden flutes. In a word: The best performance ever!"