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John Passion - Dunedin Consort - The Guardian


17 March 2013
The Guardian
Kate Molleson
4 Stars

Rarely does academia translate so directly and with such visceral impact to the stage. John Butt, Bach scholar at Glasgow University and director of the Edinburgh-based Dunedin Consort, has reconstructed the Good Friday liturgy sung at Leipzig's Nikolaikirche in 1724. Bach had composed a new passion setting for the occasion - the St John Passion - but organ preludes, popular hymns, motets and a chunky sermon would have made up the rest of the service.

Dunedin's new recording covers everything, sermon and all, and the impact on Bach's passion music is revelatory. The venue didn't help: the vast echo of Kelvingrove's main hall works for some choral music, but Dunedin's one-per-part forces and Bach's intricate counterpoint got lost in the wash. And with the museum's organ currently out of action, Stephen Farr was forced to play a mini stage instrument that struggled for sonic punch.

Still, this was a streamlined performance that cut right to essentials. Dunedin's eight vocalists sang beautifully: Nicholas Mulroy was a superb Evangelist, alert and vivid, Matthew Brook a sonorous, gentle Jesus, Clare Wilkinson a dulcet alto and Julia Doyle a feather-light soprano. Farr's organ preludes were contemplatively whispered, and the Renaissance funeral motet Ecce Quomodo Moritur by Gallus was mesmerising after the passion proper. Butt's knack for accentuating the elastic pace of Bach's writing - really driving the narrative action and drawing out the meditative arias - was magnified by the extra liturgy. He also invited us to sing the congregational chorales; in a rare case of Glaswegian timidity the audience was shy to join in, but even humming along was enough to bring home the immersive and dramatic experience. And for that, Butt's reconstruction is groundbreaking.
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