Bach Christmas Oratorio


Bach Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) concert of 6 cantatas recorded 2012 in the Salle Henry Le Bœuf at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. Philippe Herreweghe conducts the Collegium Vocale Gent with soloists Dorothee Mields (soprano), Damien Guillon (countertenor or alto), Thomas Hobbs (tenor), and Peter Kooij (bass). Subtitles in English, German, French, and Japanese. Lighting by Johan de Vogelaere; sound by Walter de Niel, Lode Verschueren, and Johan Favoreel; vision mixer was Herwig Goorts; editing by Michel Vanderhaeghen. Directed for TV by Leonid Adamopoulos; produced by Els T'Seyen. Released 2013, music was recorded with 48kHz/24-bit sound sampling, and disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: B+

David Vickers, writing in the January 2014 Gramophone at page 64 applauds this title warmly for "profound" playing and singing and for preserving "the devotional context of the celebrations for a pensive congregation." (Vickers was not suggesting that this was a worship service. This was a concert. But anyone listening to 6 Bach cantatas is going to be pensive.) I agree that the oratorio here was performed splendidly. The recording of the music is vibrant and close with good balance for the orchestra, the chorus, and the soloists.  I did have trouble at times hearing the double bass violin part on my system, and it would have been better if 96kHz/24-bit sound sampling had been used. Otherwise, I think the SQ comes close to the audiophile level.

Vickers also says the video, "is not only musically beguiling but also filmed intelligently, with the production team always illuminating exactly the right views of the musical details perfectly on cue." This means that the TV director and his crew knew the piece well enough follow the melody from soloist to soloist. But being able to follow the bouncing ball is something different from making a good video of the ball game. In the rest of this review, I'll focus on the video. 

The first responsibility of the TV director is to give the home viewer plenty of opportunity at the beginning of the video to see the whole stage and to note where all the instruments and singers are located. This Adamopoulos did not do. The first screenshot below shows Herreweghe approaching the podium. This view last only a second or so. The picture is inexcusably off-center and lops off half of a trumpet player. The conductor starts the performance immediately, and then it's off to the races with numerous short clips of various small groups of musicians. The TV director must remember that a person in the live audience sees the entire performance in one take and can focus his attention as he desires. If the TV director starts shooting short clips immediately, he usurps the right of the viewer to look around as he pleases and get oriented. He must show restraint and allow the home viewer to stay in control for a while. Stated differently, the TV director must suppress the urge at the beginning of a piece to start running around like a kid in the candy shop:

The TV director should give the home viewer many views of the whole stage during the entire performance. The home viewer bought the disc, so he deserves plenty of video repose during the performance rather than be forced to constantly accept whatever the TV director decides to do. Adamopoulos had lots of ways to provide repose. In addition to a head-on shot, he had a boom that could provide the fairly decent whole-stage shot shown below:

The boom could even reach the next view below. This is, however, a weak shot since it shows the backs of half the musicians:


The next view below would be nice, but is too low. If you could raise the camera some, it would work:

Finally, next below is an excellent whole-orchestra shot that shows almost every performer well enough for you to see what they are doing. Unfortunately you get this shot once on this disc, it lasts only a short time, and it pops up in the final minutes of the whole oratorio in the 6th cantata!  This shot should have been used many times in the video record---how strangely perverse that Amadopoulos uses his best shot only once and at the end of the work! (Note the camera on the right of the picture. The head-on shots in this video are off-center, probably in an effort not to show the equipment on the right side of the stage. The better call is to show your musicians correctly in all cases. Nobody will notice equipment that happens to get into the picture.)

Please don't think I seek a static or "clinical" video with a locked-down camera or two merely documenting what happen on the stage. Of course we want to take advantage of video camera mobility to get closer to the action than the whole-stage views. In fact, another important obligation of the TV director is to seek shots of whole sections of musicians in action. For example, here is a beautiful shot of all the violins and violas playing during Cantata 1:

And here's another nice angle on all 8 violins and violas:

Here's a gorgeous shot of all the sopranos and altos (the 3 men are countertenors singing as altos):

Here are the 8 tenors and basses:


And now here's a neat shot of the whole choir:

And here's another view that qualifies as a "near-whole-orchestra" shot and also shows all the woodwinds at work:

It's also nice to see a moderate number of shots of small sections:


And it's especially good to get solo shots of singers who express a great deal with their faces. Here is the solo soprano Dorothee Mields:

Solo tenor Thomas Hobbs:

Solo alto Damien Guillon:

And here's Giullon again with the girls. I've been sharply critical of Adamopoulos for hyperactive video content. But I have the highest praise for him for PQ. The images you see in this review on your computer screen look quite nice. In the HT, they are gorgeous. Even though the light was not particularly bright, video resolution is excellent. Great color balance and the handling of light and shadow give many of the images a mysterious luminosity that somehow seems to resonate with the rich sonority and nimbleness of Bach's music:

Lead bass Peter Kooij:

Most of the 6 cantatas in this oratorio have different forces from each other. All the cantatas were originally written for secular purposes and, I think, at different times. It appears Bach wrote each cantata for the particular musicians and singers he had available on each occasion (like the wild variations in the forces used in the 6 Brandenburg Concertos). But there are two players who appear in each of the 6 cantatas and who ceaselessly perform, without rest, as Bach's rhythm section: Maude Gratton on organ and Miriam Shalinsky on double bass:

The small organ seen above is such a neat instrument! With its steady tone, it contributes so much more than, say, a harpsichord. Below is a close-up of Shalinsky. Note the crudeness of her big double bass. The frets on the bridge are made from twine tied by hand with knots! Shalinsky has the hardest job in the whole production physically---when she goes home, she deserves a soak in the tub!

I include the next shot below as an example of excellent video resolution. I think an organist could play the music off the image in my home theater:

Bach builds a lot of variety and different combinations into these cantatas. Here, for example, is a soprano-bass duet:

And here we see reduced forces (only 3 winds) in Cantata 5:

Although there are many beautiful things in the screenshots above, I have to conclude that this title suffers from a mild case of DVDitis. This is a disease that mostly afflicts recordings of symphony concerts that were intended to be published as DVDs and which are also published in Blu-ray. Because of low video resolution, DVD recordings can't provide good shots of an entire symphony orchestra or long shots of multiple sections of the orchestra. To cope with this limitation, the practice developed of shooting many short clips of single musicians or small groups of musicians. This style of recording reminds me of the Road Runner cartoons.  But when you shoot an symphony orchestra with HD cameras, you can get decent long range shots. So a symphony HDVD (Blu-ray disc) can be displayed in a more civilized and relaxed way that gets much closer than a DVD to the live experience a concert goer has in the music hall. Find out more about this in our special article about the good symphony video in HDVD.

The main symptoms of DVDitis are (1) a multitude of short clips showing small groups of players and (2) the lack of good whole-orchestra shots. We have already noted these symptoms in subject title. Another symptoms would be trash shots like the instrument-only shot we see next below. These shots take create "filler" without contributing anything to the video:

And yet another symptom of DVDitis would be shots made over the backs of musicians, especially when they really designed just to show the conductor again. Subject video has a ton of these:

I will have to mark this title down for DVDitis. In videos of a full symphony, a bad case of DVDitis can move the grade from "A+" to "C+." But the smaller the ensemble, the less objectionable DVDitis is likely to be. As the number of people on the stage decreases, the easier it becomes for the TV director to get larger-scale shots, even if this happens by accident. So starting with an "A+", I drop subject title to "A" for lack of 96kHz sound sampling. I drop one grade to "B" for DVDitis. But I then move the grade up to "B+" thanks to excellent PQ and superb performance.

Wonk Bryan Balmer "ran the numbers" on Cantata I. It passed the supershots and conductor tests. But the pace at 6.1 seconds per clip was too fast, which in turn comes from too many short clips. Byran, a chorus fan, likes the performance here even better than his reference legacy recording. So I think Bryan would maybe give this a further bump to A-. I'm sticking with the B+ (a good grade on this website) because we are here above all else always advocates for the best video content.

I hope I'm not being unfair to Adamopolous. Quite possibly his producer told him, "We are making this as cheaply as possible for the DVD market. But use HD gear, because we might also publish it in Blu-ray to try to sell a few more units." If that happened, then Adamopoulos did the best he could with the orders he got from the suits. Maybe in a few years Herreweghe can do this again (in 4K) and you a/vphiles can get an HDVD with the video quality you deserve.