Tag Archives: Philippe Herreweghe

Belgian conductor

My Favorite Versions of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Christmas Music

Only three weeks left until Christmas. Usually, during this time there are three unavoidable things: Some singer releasing a Christmas album (that reminds me that I need to write a post about my favorite Jazz Christmas albums, watch this space), you hear Wham again on the radio 5 times per day, and most households that have some form of love for classical music play the Christmas oratorio, in a similar frequency to the Last Christmas repetitions on popular radio.

I’m very similar, during the month of December the Oratorio gets played at least 10-20 times. I wonder myself why I still like it. But let’s face it, this is Bach, and you can never get too much Bach.

Listening to this work you’re best of when you speak at least some German, as you get the entire beautiful Christmas story told to you by the Evangelist, but if you don’t, either get the booklet or just enjoy the music

(Side note: I’m not religious, but having grown up in a Western country Christmas has become more of a family tradition than a religious event for me like for many others).

Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir (DG Archiv 1987)

Bach Christmas Oratorio John Eliot Gardiner Monteverdi Choir English Baroque Soloists DG Archiv 1987

Gardiner’s version from 1987 is probably the best known, and it is still my favorite version. I’m not sure if my preference isn’t biased by the fact that I’ve heard it so much over and over again, but Gardiner plays with so much drive and energy, that although I must have heard this hundreds of times, it still doesn’t get boring.

There are obviously many alternatives.

Philippe Herreweghe (Erato 1992)

One of my favorite alternatives around is also a bit older. Philippe Herreweghe’s version is a bit more mellow than Gardiner, but still has all the beauty in both playing and singing.

Bach Christmas Oratorio Philippe Herrweghe Collegium Vocale Ghent Erato

I have listened to a number of more recent versions, but still go back to these two above most of the time. Among the more recent alternatives I’ve tried are Mazaaki Suzuki (polished, but a bit too behaved), Diego Fasolis (really fast, not my cup of tea), and Gramophone’s favorite version, Harnoncourt 2nd version on Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (good but I like both versions above better).

My rating: 4 stars for both (I’m still waiting for the perfect version, but both come pretty close)

You can download the Gardiner here (Qobuz) and the Herreweghe here (Qobuz again)

Can Heaven Be Captured On Disc? Bach’s B-minor Mass BWV 232

Another entry on Bach. Maybe I should add him to my Blog title.

In any case, I just had to write about the b-minor mass, as it is such a fantastic work of art, one of the absolute highlights of the entire classical repertoire in my view.

Again, if you want to know more about the history, I don’t feel like I need to copy Wikipedia here, the only thing that is a bit particular about the story of this mass is actually that it is a full traditional catholic mass, given that Bach was a protestant composer. Actually, Bach apparently never performed the full thing in one go during his lifetime.

Well we don’t need to care about these historic details, we can just sit back and enjoy this amazing beauty. It is pretty long, around 2h, but there is so much to discover that it is worth putting down our tendency of ADHD (and I’m the first to admit to that disease) and listen to it from back to back. If your ADHD is too much of an issue, just pick out parts, as JSB would have done during his time.

The Great Catholic Mass

What is so special about this work (to give it its formal title “Messe in h-moll BWV232“, or as Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach called it the “Great Catholic Mass”? To me, it is most of all the overwhelming power. I’ve said before that I’m not religious, but  when I hear the choir sing the “Kyrie eleyson” (Lord, have mercy) with full organ backup,  I’m sometimes getting second thoughts. Or take the “Qui tollis”, how the choir interacts with the solo flute, or to give a final example, the beautiful glory of the “Sanctus”. Just amazing.

Karl Richter

The first version I ever had of this was, as many other probably, Karl Richter’s legendary 1961 version.

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There is still a lot of positives about this recording today, including the outstanding soloists (Fischer-Dieskau, anybody?). That said, a lot of time has passed since this version and the last 50 years have completely changed our reception of Bach and other Baroque works, thanks to the movement of “historically informed performance” by Harnoncourt et al. in the 1970s/80s.

Therefore, as much as I appreciate the sheer power of this version, I’m not going back to it that often.

Philippe Herreweghe – omne trium perfectum – All Good Things Come By in Threes

Philippe Herreweghe (yes I know, again as well) has recorded the b-minor mass three times (to quote Herreweghe himself: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”). All three recordings are very good, my preferred one by small margin is the last one from 2011 on his own label Phi. It was recorded in Berlin.

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It just gives you the perfect balance, it is not over the top, but extremely intense.

Another excellent alternative, and my other favorite, is Frans Brüggen’s older recording from 1990 on Philips.

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Obviously, there are many others that have done an excellent job, from Gardiner (both 1985 and 2015) to Hengelbrock, to Suzuki. But these two recordings are just one tiny notch above the very busy crowd.

5 stars for both recordings.

UPDATE Nov 20, 2015: You’ll find a review of Gardiner’s 2015 recording of the b-minor mass here.

 

You can find the Herreweghe here (Qobuz)

Brahms lesser known choral works brilliantly performed by Philippe Herreweghe

One more post on Brahms (again).

I was thinking I’d be writing next about his amazing Deutsches Requiem, the only major requiem I know of that is not written to the traditional latin text but where Brahms himself has chosen parts of the bible he really cared about and in his native language, German (hence the title).

But somehow, this amazing work still overwhelms me and I don’t feel ready yet to talk about it at this stage. If you want to check it out, you can’t go wrong with Klemperer’s classic version on EMI, with the amazing Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. More about this later.

So let me write about all the works that share the beauty of the Requiem masterpiece but are much less known, and deserve to be known better, mainly the “Schicksalslied” and the “Alto Rhapsody”.

Schicksalslied op. 54

The Schicksalslied op. 54, or Song of Destiny, takes a Hoelderlin poem and puts is in words. Do yourself a favor and check out the beautiful lyrics. (I’m the first to admit I’m still not sure I fully understood it to be fair, but the beauty of the words are extremely touching.)

You’ll see that the text is split in two parts, one describing the beauty:

Luminous heaven-breezes

Touching ye soft,

Like as fingers when skillfully

Wakening harp-strings.

the second one about desperation:

To us is allotted

No restful haven to find

The music is split in two parts, of pretty much identical duration, that reflect the lyrics, you can feel the heaven-breezes in the first 8 minutes, while the music slides with us “Destined to disappearance below” in the second half of the work.

All in all, about 16 minutes of extreme intensity, both musically and vocally.

Alt-Rhapsodie op. 53

Written around the same time as the Schicksalslied (notice the relates opus numbers), and about 1 year after the requiem. On top of the chorus, this cantata has a solo alto.

On this work there is a background. I’ve mentioned before that Brahms was in love with the beautiful, young and extremely talented (she was one of the major piano virtuosos of her time) wife of his mentor, Clara Schumann. In a twist that would sound unrealistic even for a Hollywood blockbuster script, he later considered marrying one of her daughters, Julie. He actually never did (and apparently never even proposed), for unknown reasons, and remained a bachelor for his entire life. So he wrote this for her (Julie’s) wedding as a “good-bye” to marriage.

Now consider the starting lyrics of the alto aria, taken from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Brahms clearly knew his German classics) “Harzreise”:

Aber abseits, wer ist’s?“ (But who is that apart?) describing some poor fellow who is “engulfed by the wasteland”. In spite of these lyrics, the work is surprisingly calm and relaxed, and has very beautiful interaction between the solo alto and the chorus.

Philippe Herreweghe

The Belgian conductor Philippe Herreweghe has been one of the stars of the historically informed practice of playing music, and has started mainly with Baroque music. In recent years, he has ventured more and more into the romantic period, conducting Mahler, Dvorak, and also Brahms

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His recording of the Alto Rhapsody and Schicksalslied dates from 2011 and has appeared on his own label, Phi. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing both works performed live, again at the KKL in Lucerne, I believe in 2012.

This version is outstanding. Ann Hallenberg doesn’t have the power of a Christa Ludwig on the legendary Klemperer recording (you’ll have noticed by now that you never go wrong with Klemperer on Brahms), but the recording it has so many beautiful nuances and shades, both in the excellent choral parts and the vocal solo, that is has become my go-to version of these beautiful works.

As “fillers”, you get three more choral works from Brahms that are even less known than the two before, a Motet, the Begräbnisgesang op. 13, and the Gesang der Parzen op. 89. None of them individually would be worth buying an album for, but there is a lot of beauty especially in the 11 minutes of the Gesang der Parzen. But if you don’t mind purchasing albums by the track, you can also stop after the first two tracks in my opinion.

My rating: 5 stars

Let me know what you think in the comments below!