Reviewed by Johan Palme on 6th December, 2020
Peter Schreier, tenor extraordinaire and one of the greatest singing interpreters of Bach of the 20th century, passed away on Christmas day last year. A date. so many times before, he’d spend in churches and concert halls around the world, performing his widely acknowledged greatest role, that of the Evangelist in the Christmas Oratorio. More than any other singer, Peter Schreier managed to make each syllable, each single note meaningful, not just in the sense of clearly articulating the words or their emotional impact, but musically meaningful.
I think I may be coloured by my background as a pop music critic venturing into unknown territory, but I sometimes find classical music a bit lifeless. For all the significant differences between interpretations of the Christmas Oratorio, the endless debates dividing historical accuracy and artistic reinterpretation, a lot of it comes across as surprisingly timid. But there’s something special about Schreier. In Martin Flämig’s considerably more sleepy recording from 1975 Peter Schreier stands out utterly, because he seems to have a unique sense of pacing, finding rhythms and expressivity in what should by all rights mundane passages. It’s probably heresy in classical music circles to say so, but Peter Schreier has groove.
And in this, his own recording from a decade later (combining the physically improbable roles of conductor and lead tenor) he seems to have transferred that sense of groove to the whole orchestra. Entire books have been written about Bach’s relationship to dance, but this may be the only recording of the Christmas Oratorio where anyone has dared to really feel just how much dance really permeates even this holy piece to the core. There are weaknesses – many of the other singers are mediocre at best – but the sheer joy of Schreier’s take makes it by far my favourite version of this grand cycle.