In Tempore Nativitatis – Bach’s Christmas Cantatas by Philippe Pierlot

Christmas Music

Finding tasteful Christmas music is not always an easy task.

Obviously, not everything is as bad as this:

or this:

But nevertheless, there is still a lot of tasteless stuff around. I’ve tried to point to some of my sources for tasteful Christmas music, the timeless Christmas Oratorio, the Nutcracker, and my favorite Christmas Jazz albums previously, but luckily good old Johann Sebastian has also written more than the Christmas Oratorio.

Bach’s Christmas Cantatas

The Christmas Oratorio itself is basically a collection of cantatas, and as part of his large collection of cantatas (that I yet need to write about in more detail), he’s also written several cantatas for specific seasons.

Typically, there are three cantatas closely associated with Christmas.

BWV 63, Christen, ätzet diesen Ta(Christians, engrave this day), was written in 1713 for the first day of Christmas, referring to the announcement of Christ. In character, it is very festive, but not necessarily very “christmassy”.

BWV 110, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (May our mouth be full of laughter), is my favorite of the three. This is partially due to the fact that its opening is based on Bach’s Orchestral Suite BWV 1069, which I really love. And here, the addition of the choir really gives it a fully new structure and beauty. Again, this cantata was written for the first day of Christmas, in 1725, while Bach was working in Leipzig.

BWV 151, Süßer Trost, mein Jesus kömmt (Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes), was also written in 1725, for St. John’s day, the third day of Christmas, is the most intimate of the three cantatas, but doesn’t lack any beauty nevertheless. Just check out the beautiful flute solo in the first movement.

There is obviously no shortage of recordings of Bach cantatas, there is a sizable number of complete recordings out there. My personal favorites usually are Koopman and Gardiner, but Suzuki’s and Rilling also are very nice alternatives.

In Tempore Nativitatis – Christmas Cantatas – Philippe Pierrot – Ricercar Consort (Mirare 2013)

Bach: In Tempore Nativitatis - Weihnachten Kantanten - Christmas Cantatas - Canates de Noël - Ricercar Consort Philippe Pierlot Mirare

The Ricercar Consort is a Belgian ensemble lead by Philippe Pierlot. The musicians play with a lot of love for the music, and generate a very transparent and spacious sound.

The voices are also very beautiful. My favorite is Maria Keohane in Süsser Trost, but also really like Julien Prégardien, son of Christoph, here as well

If you want to go for a complete collection of cantatas, you may well go directly to Koopman and Gardiner, but if you are looking for a modern, beautifully recorded version of the Christmas cantatas specifically, you really cannot go wrong with this album.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) or here (Prestoclassical)

Rameau’s Zaïs – Beautiful French Baroque Opera by Christophe Rousset

Jean-Philippe Rameau

As mentioned previously, I’m anything but a French baroque expert. I’m a big fan of Bach, love Händel’s operas and oratorios, but my main encounter with Rameau has so far been two excellent “best of” albums, the 2014 Le Jardin de Monsieur Rameau by the brilliant William Christie, and the equally beautiful 2013 album by the young soprano Sabine Devielhe with Alexis Kossenko, Le Grand Théatre de l’Amour.

Zaïs (Aparté 2015)

So I had a vague idea of what to expect when I purchased the latest release by Christophe Rousset and his ensemble Les Talens Lyriques.

By the way, I’m not the only one who will discover the beauty of this opera. Unlike many of Händel’s operas that have seen major revivals in the last 30 years, the last time this has been recorded was 40 years ago by one of the fathers of the historically informed practice, Gustav Leonhard.

Whether the story is worth following is up for debate. Luckily I speak French so I am able to follow the singing, but whether you’re actually interested in understanding what the genie Zaïs is up to, well your call. Basically, not surprisingly, he’s after a woman (Zélide), disguises himself as a shepard, and eventually is willing to give up his magic powers to be able to marry her. Luckily, his boss, Oromazès, king of the genies, is so impressed by the sacrifice that he’s ok to immortalize them both. Nice, isn’t it? What is interesting to note is that apparently, similar to Mozart’s Zauberflöte, this is a work inspired by freemasonry, the booklet tells me.

Rameau Zais Christophe Rousset Les Talens Lyriques 24 96 2015

Rousset is  well known for his recordings of Rameau’s harpsichord works. He does a brilliant job leading his baroque ensemble, there is power and drive (check out the dramatic overture), but also always the right level of nuance if required.

Some great singers as well. Sandrine Piau (love her), Julien Prégardien (son of Christophe), and their colleagues, if unknown to me, all do a great job.

This album has been awarded “Choc de l’Année” (their equivalent of album of the year) by Classica Magazine and 5 stars by Diapason d’or.

I wouldn’t go just as far. On my personal scale, Rameau still comes behind Bach and Händel, but he’s climbed some serious steps on my personal appreciation ladder with this album.

My rating: 4 stars (true 5 star playing, but as said above, I still prefer other baroque composers). But you won’t regret buying it, I guarantee!

You can download it here (Qobuz, hoping they survive their current financial difficulties), or here (Prestoclassical)