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BACH: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Blu-ray (2014)

BACH: Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, Blu-ray (2014)

Performers: Claron McFadden, sop./ Bernarda Fink, alto/ Christoph Genz, tenor/ Dietrich Henschel, bass/ Monteverdi Choir/ English Baroque Soloists/ John Eliot Gardiner
Producer: Hanno Plate-Andreini
Studio: EuroArts 2045094, 2014 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 1080i HD color  
Audio: PCM Stereo 2.0, DTS Master Audio Surround Sound
Subtitles: German, English, French, Japanese, Korean
No Region Code
Length: 142 minutes
Extras: J.S. Bach – An Introduction to the Christmas Oratorio, 26 minutes; J.E. Gardiner in Saxony and Thuringia, 26 minutes
Rating: *****

This disc is a video commemoration of one of the most intriguing and ingratiating events of the last 20 years. In 1999 John Eliot Gardiner, in order to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death in the year 2000, inaugurated a year of Bach performances whereby one of the composer’s cantatas was performed each week. Over 80 concerts were performed in Europe (and a few in America), documented in the admirable Soli Deo Gloria series which captured each event, and was released oh-so-slowly over the next decade. The choir and orchestra were in top shape for the most part (these are live performances), and the effort was something quite personal to Gardiner, who has grown up haunted by the composer since a young man.

This concert in the Weimar Herder Church (dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul) marks the beginning of the pilgrimage, captured in a spectacular setting (the church has a famous triptych by the father-son team of  Lucas Cranach the Elder and  Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1552-55, Christ on the Cross) in acoustics of resonant and truly ear-balm properties. The cast is exceptional, especially the remarkable Bernarda Fink at the beginning of her celebrity, and the gorgeous instrument of the bass Dietrich Henschel, whose clarity-laden and rounded tone sounds to the manner born. Everyone is visibly enthused by the proceedings, as if knowing the importance of the engagement and the triumphs to come. This is the equal to just about any Christmas Oratorio I have ever heard, with sounds and visuals to match the excellence of the performance. Those who have all or portions of the Bach Pilgrimage on SDG Records can’t afford to pass on this one, and anyone looking for a great rendition of this essential piece, especially in surround sound with great images, won’t be let down. What a great way to end the year!

—Steven Ritter

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