Looking for a seasonal gift recording and tired of the same old round of Handel "Messiahs" and a soprano-of-the-moment singing glitzy arrangements of carols? Then consider the "Christmas Oratorio" of Camille Saint-Saens, hardly unknown to church choirs but a rarity on recordings. It makes its compact-disc debut (Capriccio 10 216) just in time for the holidays.
This gentle, even beatific work dates from 1858, when the French composer was 23 years old and not as yet affected by either German models or the virtuoso style. Berlioz's "L'Enfance du Christ," written some five years earlier, is brought to mind in Saint-Saens' small, deftly employed instrumental forces, his understated yet telling recitative and calmly flowing arias.
The 40-minute-long oratorio, with prominent organ and harp solos--could Faure have had this work in mind when composing his Requiem?--is given a polished, reverent performance by the Dresden Philharmonic and the Dresden Kreuzchor (the celebrated all-male chorus of that city's Church of the Cross), with soprano Ute Seibig and tenor Armin Ude a pair of exceptionally sweet-voiced soloists. The able conductor is Martin Flamig.
And there's a contrasting rarity from the same East German forces sharing this attractive CD: Mendelssohn's youthfully exuberant, Bach-inspired cantata "Vom Himmel hoch," for vocal soloists, chorus and large orchestra with trumpets and drums to the fore.
The "Christmas" Oratorio--J.S. Bach's--is, surprisingly, also encountered more frequently in live performance than on recordings, the latter cropping up only about twice in a decade. Now, in accordance with the marvelously inscrutable ways of the recording industry, two new CD editions appear in a single week , with a third (on the Angel label) to follow, presumably before year's end.
One (Deutsche Grammophon-Archiv 423 232, two CDs) has John Eliot Gardiner leading his superb Monteverdi Choir and period-instrument English Baroque Soloists with crackling vigor. Outstanding among the agile vocal soloists are tenor Anthony Rolfe Johnson, singing the part of the Evangelist; mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and baritone Olaf Bar.
The second version (Philips 420 204, three CDs)--directed by Peter Schreier, who is also its tenor Evangelist--is among the more satisfying modern-instrument interpretations within memory. It, too, favors crisp rhythms and lively--if not so lively as Gardiner's--tempos. The Dresden State Orchestra, with its splendid trumpet trio, plays very well, and the Leipzig Radio Chorus, while seemingly a good deal larger than Gardiner's 28-member ensemble, sings with ample flexibility.
Schreier's soloists--himself included--do, however, sound rather thick in tone and sluggish in execution when compared to Gardiner's team of Baroque specialists. And the added cost--three discs to Gardiner's two--may well put this version out of the running, anyway.
And finally, for those to whom the season wouldn't be complete without at least one new "Messiah," here are two. The Hyperion label offers an "authentic" edition (66251/2, two CDs) by the Sixteen Choir and Orchestra--whatever that may mean, since the chorus numbers 19 and the orchestra 20--and a quintet of featherweight vocal soloists under the piously genteel direction of one Harry Christophers. Not much competition for the scholarly and virile versions led by John Eliot Gardiner and Ton Koopman on the Philips and Erato labels, respectively.
The second "Messiah" is an intelligent modern version employing the relatively numerous forces of the Toronto Symphony and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir (Angel 49027, two CDs). The conductor is Andrew Davis, who gives us textural clarity and grandeur without recourse to Victorian bloat or lethal re-instrumentation. His soloists are the 1980s subscription series all-stars: soprano Kathleen Battle, mezzo Florence Quivar, tenor John Aler and bass Samuel Ramey, all of whom perform with their customary skill, and even manage some discreet embellishment of the more familiar arias.