Dunedin Consort - J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio - AllMusic
Released ahead of the 2016 holiday season, this recording of Bach's Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, entered a field where there was plenty of competition, but the performance by Scotland's historically oriented Dunedin Consort have a great deal to recommend them. For one thing, conductor John Butt seems to understand the dynamic of this somewhat troublesome work better than most other interpreters. Much of the music consists of reworkings of earlier cantata movements, some of them secular. This was of course typical of Bach's way of working, and a convincing performance such as Butt's provides conveys not only the differences among the six cantatas that compose the oratorio, but also some of Bach's thinking as he put the work together. Butt varies the forces used for the cantatas, which makes sense (they were originally performed separately, on different Sundays), and he forges attractive contrasts between them. In so doing, he also strikes a middle path between the one-voice-per-part readings fashionable in historical performance circles and those with larger choirs: he doubles the vocal lines in the choral movements of the cantatas with trumpets (the first, third, and sixth), and uses quartets in the others. Leaving aside the larger debate over this approach, it seems to work better with the Christmas Oratorio than with other works (given that it is made up of cantatas rather than more grandly conceived music), and Butt's solution is both clever and musically solid. Further, his mostly Scottish soloists add personality to the music and are worth hearing in themselves. Sample the uncanny, piercing voice of soprano Joanne Lunn in the famous "echo" aria "Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt den Namen" from the fourth cantata; it matches the slightly edgy and tense, but never unpleasant, tone of the whole. The sonic environment of Edinburgh's Greyfriars Church is ideal. This is a performance in which intelligent, small decisions cohere into a persuasive larger whole.