Big surprise, I’m going with Bach rather than Handel in this category. He seems like the obvious choice, and in this case you can’t argue with it–the opening alone is one of the most joyous bits of music ever written, and the whole piece is stunning. Owning this work is not discretionary. You’d have to include Handel’s Messiah in this group as well (which people seem to normally trot out at Easter, even though it was written as a Christmas work), and a bunch of the works of Heinrich Schütz, who studied with Monteverdi, and wrote a whole gaggle of lovely late Renaissance pieces, ranging from individual songs to entire concertos, and who has several striking Christmas pieces, including an oratorio. But Bach, who also wrote a whole slew of Christmas cantatas and other Christmas pieces, pulled out the stops on this one. My favorite version is the one on on EMI classics, with the Academy of Saint Martin in the fields, the Kings College choir, and a bunch of hotshot soloists who actually blend well together, for a change– Elly Ameling, Janet Baker, Robert Tear, and Dietrich Fischer-Diskau. But of course it’s no longer available, although you can still track them down through Amazon. Ameling in particular is amazing. She also did a wonderful Christmas album about 20 years ago with Thijs van Leer, who was (and still is) with the rock group Focus. This album, obviously, is also out of print, since I’m recommending it.
The other version that I listen to regularly is the one from the Dresdner Kammerchor, which is one of my favorite choral groups, this time backed by the Dresdner Barokorchester, with a group of soloists that you are unlikely to be familiar with. A very lively version. Amazon will tell you that it has been discontinued by the manufacturer, but that’s not true–you can order it from Raumklang Records in Germany. Raumklang is one of my favorite labels–I order stuff from them regularly, and they deliver pronto.
If you don’t want to get that ambitious, and want to stick with something like Amazon, there are a couple of versions that you can’t really go wrong with. At the top of the list would be the versions by John Eliot Gardner, recorded in 1987 with Anne Sofie von Otter, or the version by Nicolas Harnoncourt, a recent update of the version he first recorded in 1973. The Rene Jacobs version is also worth a listen, although Jacobs’ interpretations of Bach are not to everyone’s taste.
Much is often made of the fact that Bach had seventeen children (twenty, actually, but three died while young). Remarkably, the people who feel compelled to note this rarely bring in the two Mrs. Bachs, the second of whom bore thirteen, all of whom grew up. This was while Bach himself was mostly (although not completely, obviously) hanging out at whatever cathedral he was working at, mostly in Leipzig. Whew! If there’s a medal to be awarded here, it goes to her.
In fact, I recently finished a good short biography of Bach by Martin Geck. I didn’t know Bach was a jailbird. It turns out that in Germany (or whatever it was called) at the time, court or municipal musicians couldn’t break their contracts, and if they tried to, they got thrown in jail. Bach wanted to break his contract in Weimar–so he got thrown in jail. He won, though. It also turns out that one of the folk mythologies about Bach that I had believed–that The Art of the Fugue was one of his last works–turns out to be false. It was something he had worked on for years, but remained unfinished at the time of Bach’s death. It was, however, rushed into print by his sons, so that’s probably how the myth developed. However, it is true that Bach meant it to be the summation of his view of composing.
When we were in Leipzig a couple of years ago we had a chance to visit the Bach Museum, which is the house that Bach lived in during his stay there. It was pretty neat, and I got one of those t-shirts that shrinks immediately, so I haven’t been able to wear it much. Leipzig is a hotbed of early music performance, if such a thing can be said to exist—it has spawned both Ioculatores and Ensemble Amarcord, along with many less well known groups.
The Christmas Cantatas are nice too–I like the Ton Koopman versions.