“Modern” means “lush, rich, well-upholstered, grand”. It also means “soupy and lacking rhythmic drive or any scholarly input”. At least that's the impression you'd get from some reviewers of Bach recordings. I'd normally be on their side- I've never heard a performance of a Bach cantata from a modern symphony orchestra with the dance of Philippe Herreweghe's Collegium Vocale Ghent, the beauty of sound of Masaaki Suzuki's Bach Collegium Japan. But Ricardo Chailly is a man on a mission to remind the world that you can be lithe, exciting and most of all fast with Bach, even if you're using modern instruments with not a gut string in sight. Admittedly, his 2010 Christmas Oratorio recording is with a modern-instrument orchestra that ought to have Bach's choral tradition in its blood- the Leipzig Gewandhaus: founded in Bach's lifetime, providing musicians for St Thomas's since 1840, and keeping the flame of Bach's cantatas alive in throughout the Communist regime.
And flame is precisely the right metaphor for Chailly's performance of the opening chorus for the Sunday after New Year. It crackles along a shade faster even than John Eliot Gardiner's recording. The brightness of the chorus's light vowel sounds and generally high tessitura (including excitable near-squeaks from the sopranos on “sei dir Gott!”) is heightened by the modern pitch, a semitone higher than the baroque standard.
But the brightness quickly darkens; we are in a territory of danger and political intrigue, as hazardous as 1980s East Germany. The chorus's “Wo ist der neugeborne König der Jüden?”, with its repeated Wo?...
Bach, Christmas Oratorio, No. 45)
...reminds me of nothing more than the crowd's mocking three-fold “Wir, Wir, Wir haben keinen König” turba (crowd) chorus in the St John Passion:
(Bach, St John Passion, No. 46 opening)
The key and time signature is the same too, and the soprano part which follows is more or less note-for-note, with the word Koenig at the end of a B minor triad. (I've highlighted it in green). Bach would have last performed the Passion less than three years previously in April 1732, and it seems unlikely that the near-quote is completely accidental. The textual similarities with the Passions don't end here, anyway- the later tenor recitative sings of Herod summoning the high priests and elders in exactly the same terms as in the St Matthew Passion. But these resonances go beyond the simple similarity of the words and the music. They're both examples of political power in the hands of weak and frightened men; Herod at one end of Jesus's life, Pontius Pilate and the Jewish priests at the other. And the blood of innocents is shed as a result of the rulers' fear and weakness in both cases.
But the crucial difference is that the alto soloist is musically integrated into the turba, standing apart and playing the part of a believer listening to the story. The alto responds “Sucht ihn in meiner Brust”- look for him in my heart. There's no way that this is literally dramatising a character present in the Gospel story. Instead a temporal division is made in the drama to create two narrative levels, held in tension. The kings, and Herod are the base level; but Bach's own listeners, eighteen hundred years later, are themselves given a place in the drama at a higher level. So the distinction between actor and audience, singers and congregation, is being blurred and chipped away; Bach is showing that his listeners are still as much part of the great continuing drama of salvation as the kings, the shepherds and the child in the manger were.