Holger Speck

Camille Saint-Saëns: Oratorio de Noël

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Saint-Saëns' Oratorio de Noël, written when the composer was 25, is scored for five soloists, choir, strings, harp, and organ. It's drenched in warm Romanticism, but its roots in Baroque and Classical traditions are easy to hear, as in the sacred music of Mendelssohn, which it stylistically resembles. It begins with a lovely, Bachian pastorale that sets the tone of reverence and transcendence that suffuses the whole work, and which returns at the end. Only its second movement, a recitative, deals with the Biblical nativity story; the remaining movements, with texts largely taken from the Psalms, praise God in mostly general terms. Musical highlights include the Benedictus for soprano, baritone, harp, and organ and the radiant, ethereal "Tecum principium," a trio for the same ensemble, plus tenor. The Oratorio is a hugely attractive piece that reveals Saint-Saëns' mastery of shapely vocal lines, graceful contrapuntal choral writing, and gently evocative tone painting -- it's a piece that should appeal to anyone who loves nineteenth century choral music. The CD also includes six of the composer's smaller instrumental, choral, and vocal liturgical pieces that demonstrate the same virtues and values of the Oratorio. Holger Speck leads the Vocalensemble Rastatt and the instrumental ensemble Les Favorites in warm and idiomatically sensitive performances, and the soloists sing with admirable purity and delicacy. Carus' balance is ideal, but the sound in the louder passages gets a little bright, almost shrill.

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