- Weihnachtsoratorium (Christmas Oratorio), in six parts, BWV 248 (BC D7)
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This performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio demonstrates such a healthy, natural feeling for Bach's childlike yet artful sound world that it rises to the top of the list of currently available period-instrument performances. Conductor Philip Pickett's tempos are consistently well-judged; the festive choruses swing joyfully while always retaining a sense of nobility. The small orchestral and choral forces employed ensure forward motion and watertight ensemble. Magnificent brass playing (especially from the trumpets) and sensitive string solos (particularly Pavlo Beznosiuk's violin in "Schliesse, mein Herze") more than make up for the occasional intonation problems of the winds, although the positively medieval racket of the oboes at the beginning of Part Two marvelously evokes the presence of the shepherds at the Nativity. The vocal lineup is also quite impressive, with highest honors perhaps going to Paul Agnew's sensitive, tonally ravishing portrayal of the Evangelist. Andrew King's slightly nasal tone does not detract from his virtuoso performance of some of Bach's trickiest tenor arias, while bass Michael George negotiates the coloratura bass arias with great aplomb, if not always the most immaculate technique. Although soprano Catherine Bott unfortunately adopts a bleached-out boy-soprano tone, particularly in her high register, and countertenor Michael Chance sounds strained at the top, these are minor quibbles in context. Chance's distractingly audible intakes of breath in the lullaby, "Schlafe, mein Liebster," are offset by his forceful, declamatory style in Part Five's terzetto; Bott and King also turn in some of their best work here. Indeed, the sum of this performance is greater than any minor defects. John Eliot Gardiner's competing recording, while vocally excellent, is marred by forced theatricality and some inexcusably fast tempi, while Masaaki's Suzuki's piety seems artificial compared to Pickett's spontaneous exuberance. Highly recommended.