Dunedin Consort - J.S. Bach: Christmas Oratorio - InfoDad
Genuine masterpieces that are associated with specific holidays are few and far between. Two that are preeminent are Handel's Messiah for Easter and Bach's Christmas Oratorio. The result is that these works tend to be over-represented by recordings, and it is easy to wonder whether yet another version of either of them could possibly be worthwhile. On a new Linn Records release, it takes about 30 seconds for John Butt and the Dunedin Consort to answer that query with a resounding "yes" where Bach's work is concerned. The opening chorus, Jauchzet, frohlocket, is sit-up-and-take-notice bright and brilliant, so involving and appealing that it practically pulls listeners to the edge of their seats in anticipation of what is to come. It is hard to imagine a better start of the Christmas Oratorio than this one. And the passion and intensity never flag through the six cantatas that make up this work. Butt does an especially wonderful job of highlighting the distinctions among the six, which Bach orchestrates very carefully to evoke specific aspects of the Christmas story. The brilliance of sound dominates Part 1. Part 2 maintains a rural focus, befitting the story of the shepherds abiding in their fields, with extensive use of oboes and flutes. Part 3 has an inward sound, emphasized by the solo violin in the second aria, and is concerned with contemplation and humility. The dance-like opening and closing music of Part 4 transports listeners to a more elegant venue, with a wonderful second aria in which Bach uses tenor, two violins and continuo to proclaim the strength drawn from meditating on Jesus' name. Part 5 is all about the star that leads the wise men, and the lifting of spirits that the celestial display portends. And Part 6, which again offers brilliance along the line of Part 1, does so in connection with the sure victory of Jesus and his followers over the forces of darkness. Soloists and chorus alike are ideally suited for their roles in this splendid reading of the score, and the instrumental playing is exceptional. Butt has studied Bach's performance practices extensively, and puts that knowledge to superb use both in the solo passages and in the choruses. This is an unusual recording because it has, on the one hand, excellent intellectual underpinnings, and on the other, so much visceral attraction through the quality of the performance that the work seems to unfold naturally and in the only way it possibly can. The many other recordings of the Christmas Oratorio show this not to be the case, of course, and indeed, numerous excellent versions of this music are available. But this one is transcendent, in the sense that it encapsulates the meaning of Christmas as Bach saw it and at the same time goes well beyond the season to speak to listeners at any time of year. Butt makes it clear in his booklet notes that he does not see the performance as "definitive" and doubts that any single reading can be, saying that this recording "is definitely not meant to provide the model for all possible performances of this work." That is a suitably modest comment, but one that belies the many excellences here: this may not be a definitive reading, but it is one to which there are ample reasons to turn again and again for enjoyment inextricably woven with enlightenment.