Dunedin Consort - J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio - Gramophone

The Christmas Oratorio has proved strangely resistant to the theories of recent decades concerning Bach's performing forces. The only previous recording to have adopted the 'one-to-a-part' approach proposed in the early 1980s by Joshua Rifkin seems to be Philip Pickett's, and in the meantime 'choral' performances have carried on very nicely thank you. John Butt, of course, has already charmed us with one-to-a-part recordings of Bach's Passions, the B minor Mass and the Magnificat, although the term is slightly misleading; while based around a solo-voice group, choruses often employ doubling singers to take them up to two voices per part. For the Christmas Oratorio Butt uses sometimes eight voices and sometimes four in the cantatas of the cycle involving trumpets and drums (Nos 1, 3 and 6), and four throughout in the cantatas that don't (Nos 2, 4 and 5). Extra interest comes from the fact that each of the two groups uses a completely different team of singers.

Common to all Butt's Bach is an irresistible brightness and freshness, a clarity that fascinates the ear with internal detail, and a glowing sound - here, for instance, the trumpets are thrillingly bright while still perfectly assimilated into the balance. The smaller forces also allow a flexibility of phrasing and textual emphasis that Butt is happy to exploit, as well as a lightness over the ground that enables him to keep strong momentum without ever seriously rushing a single tempo. Some may wish for a touch more rhetorical timing here and there, yet in the pacing of the opening chorus or Part 2's pastoral Sinfonia, the faultless step though numbers such as 'Herr, dein Mittleid' and 'Schliesse, mein Herze' or the excited acceleration of the recitative into the Shepherds' Chorus in Part 3, Butt's judgement is generally spot-on and serves the music rather than him.

The singer teams show plenty of Bachian expertise. Though the chorales somehow suffer a loss of energy, the more complex choruses sound glorious (the swirling angels of 'are sei Gott' somehow gain in headiness from single voices), and there is a comforting pleasure to be had from hearing recognisable individual voices within. Nicholas Mulroy and Thomas Hobbs both make assured and communicative Evangelists (the former slightly more dramatic, the latter slightly more lyrical), and only Clare Wilkinson's oddly confidential 'Bereite dich, Zion' seems to take a wrong stance. Mary Bevan is a singer to watch, and newcomer Ciara Hendrick has an impressive tone which we can hope will acquire more lyrical strength. No doubt about it, though; like last year's Magnificat disc, this latest gift from the Dunedin Consort is one to go under the tree. 

Gramophone
01 December 2016