Sunday 13 January 2019

Bach in Cologne: Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachts-Oratorium), Parts IV-VI, performed in the Kölner Philharmonie

Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral
Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne Cathedral
Bach Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachts-Oratorium), Parts IV-VI; Sibylla Rubens, Ingeborg Danz, Jörg Dürmüller, Konstantin Krimmel, Vokolensemble Kölner Dom, Kölner Kammerorchester, cond. Eberhard Metternich; Kölner Philharmonie Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 5 October 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
Bach’s Christmas Oratorio proved a feast for the mind and soul especially falling on the Feast of the Epiphany

Bach wrote the Christmas Oratorio in 1734 and, therefore, it was most appropriate to hear a performance (Parts IV-VI) on the Feast of the Epiphany (6 January) in the comfort of the Kölner Philharmonie lying in the shadow of Der Kölner Dom (Cologne cathedral). Here you can worship at the shrine of The Three Kings. Their relics are housed in a large gilded and decorated triple sarcophagus placed above (and behind) the High Altar - the largest reliquary in the Western world. The Christmas Oratorio was performed by Kölner Kammerorchester and the Vokalensemble Kölner Dom (the cathedral's chamber choir), conductor Eberhard Metternich (the cathedral's music director) with soloists Sibylla Rubens, Ingeborg Danz, Jörg Dürmüller, and Konstantin Krimmel

The first part (Christmas Day) describes the birth of Jesus; the second (26 December) the annunciation to the shepherds; the third (27 December) the adoration of the shepherds; the fourth (New Year’s Day) the circumcision and naming of Jesus; the fifth (first Sunday after New Year) the journey of the Magi; the sixth (Epiphany) the adoration of the Magi.

The music represents a particularly sophisticated expression of the ‘parody technique’ by which existing music is adapted for a new purpose. Therefore, Bach took the majority of the choruses and arias from works which had been previously written. Most of this music, though, was secular written in praise of royalty or notable local figures outside the tradition of performance within the Church.

As a composer of such extraordinary genius and widespread influence so firmly embedded in Western culture, it is difficult to comprehend that Bach’s music and reputation once languished in obscurity, virtually unknown to all but a few specialists and academics. It was through the determined efforts of Felix Mendelssohn that his works became accessible to a wider public and today are recognised as summits of musical expression.

Whether you like Bach performed by large forces or small is debatable, of course, but from my point of view I much prefer smaller forces and this performance with the Kölner Kammerorchester and the Vokalensemble Kölner Dom totalled 32 and 51 members respectively working like clockwork under the direction of Eberhard Metternich who set a moderate tempo that allowed both vocal and instrumental lines to breathe freely.

The quartet of soloists were all familiar with the works of Bach and it showed. The soprano, Sibylla Rubens, was heard to good effect in ‘Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen’ (O my Saviour, does your name) with the echo-soprano coming from the ranks of the choir whilst tenor, Jörg Dürmüller, was clear and precise in his reading of ‘Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben’ (I will live only for Your honour) with continuo gracefully flowing from violin and cello.

The end of the New Year’s Day (Part IV) ‘Jesus richte mein Beginnen’ (May Jesus order my beginning) saw the combined voices of Vokolensemble Kölner Dom excelling themselves in an impressive performance greatly aided by the horn playing of Rodrigo Ortiz Serrano and Ai Kohatsu who lifted this delightful passage to a greater height.

The opening of the first Sunday after New Year (Part V) fell to the choir who once again showed their prowess in the chorale ‘Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen’ (Let honour be sung to You, O God), a lively, bright and impressive piece that gave way to the recitative by the Evangelist (Jörg Dürmüller) ‘Da Jesus geboren war zu Bethlehem’ (When Jesus was born in Bethlehem) delivered in a quiet and distinctive manner.

And the seemingly-effortless (and lyrical) bass-baritone voice of Konstantin Krimmel was heard so eloquently in the aria ‘Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen’ (Illumine my dark thoughts as well) accompanied by bassoon and cor anglais while in ‘Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen?’ (Ah, when will the time appear?) Ingeborg Danz, harbouring a richly-textured and articulate alto voice, was joined by the other three soloists accompanied by Ken Schumann (Konzert meister) and Gerhard Anders (cellist) showing off JSB at his very best.

The Epiphany (Part VI) proved bright and lively with the opening chorale ‘Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schnauben’ (Lord, when our proud enemies snarl) a forceful piece featuring the orchestra’s three-man trumpet team loudly showing off in the opening bars aided by timpani. The piece was refreshing, nothing but brilliant, in fact, not just by its writing but also by the performance delivered by the Vokolensemble Kölner Dom in a thorough professional and pleasing manner. At curtain-call they were rewarded by thunderous applause. Deservedly so!

The penultimate piece, lasting only a few bars, though, ‘Was will der Höllen schrecken nun’ (How can hell frighten now) was intelligently sung by the soloists with the choir having the last word with an energetic rendering of ‘Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen’ (Now you are well avenged) whilst the final chorale ‘Nun seid ihr wohl gerochen’ (Now vengeance hath been taken) rounded off a memorable performance.

Following Solemn High Mass of the morning of Epiphany at Der Kölner Dom concelebrated by Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, Archbishop of Cologne, I walked the short distance from the Kölner Philharmonie to the Dom to take part in the evening Epiphany Procession venerating The Three Wise Men. O Come, All Ye Faithful: the church was packed full of them in a solid act of Christian unity. A perfect ending to a perfect day!

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Finding an identity in classical music: composer Shirley Thompson on her career and recent projects - interview
  • Unwrapping Venus: the music of Barbara Strozzi at Kings Place (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Oper Köln delivers a colourful account of Ralph Benatsky? & Robert Stolz’ The White Horse Inn (★★★★) - operetta review 
  • A year at Lincoln: Aric Prentice and the choir of Lincoln Cathedral on Regent Records (★★★) - Cd review
  • Handel at Cannons: Chandos Te Deum and Chandos Anthem No. 8 from Adrian Butterfield, London Handel Orchestra and soloists (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • Seeing out the old year and seeing in the new: Tony Cooper at the Tiroler Festspiele, Erl (★★★★) - concert review
  • Ancient and modern: Liam Byrne, a viola da gamba and a laptop at Baroque at the Edge (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Diverse tapestry: Clare Norburn's Burying the Dead at Baroque at the Edge (★★★★) - music theatre review
  • Rediscovering her Polish musical roots: violinist Jennifer Pike on the personal connections in her latest disc, The Polish Violin - interview 
  • Strong and vibrant: Tallis masses and motets from the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bach's Goldberg Variations - CD review
  • 2018 in opera and concert reviews - article
  • Concerto for silent soloists: my encounter with Gavin Sutherland, music director of English National Ballet - interview
  • That Old Thing: remembering Covent Garden's revivals of historic productions in the 1980s - article
  • Home

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