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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Christmas Oratorio
, BWV 248 [142:01]
Mary Bevan (soprano); Claire Wilkinson (mezzo); Nicholas Mulroy (tenor); Matthew Brook (bass-baritone) (cantatas 1, 3 & 6)
Joanne Lunn (soprano); Ciara Hendrick (mezzo); Thomas Hobbs (tenor); Konstantin Wolff (bass-baritone) (cantatas 2, 4 & 5)
Dunedin Consort/John Butt
rec. 7-12 September 2015, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh
German text and English translation included
LINN CKD499 [75:18 + 66:43]

It may be wondered why two different solo quartets are listed for this new recording of the Christmas Oratorio. In the booklet John Butt writes an absorbing and extensive essay about the work itself and also a shorter one concerning his approach to performing it here. He cites research that has shown that Bach’s first choir (the Cantorei) for the Leipzig churches was limited by the city statutes to eight singers. Butt has worked on the premise that Bach would have used one voice to a part but that the demands on the singers of performing six cantatas in the days between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany (6 January) might have disposed him to share out the singing between two groups of singers. Not that the singers who didn’t sing on a particular day necessarily had a day off: they might well have been required to play instruments. John Butt has also used a ripieno group of four singers (SATB) for the choruses and chorales in the most heavily scored cantatas, that is to say numbers 1, 3 and 6. These are not the “resting” singers because Butt believes that Bach might well have used apprentices as his ripienists. He says that his approach is “intended to provide both consistency and variety, but without necessarily corresponding directly with what Bach actually did.”

I’ll confess straightaway that when I listen to Bach’s choral works I prefer to hear a small choir of the size used by such conductors as Gardiner or Suzuki. However, I’ve found that John Butt is always thoughtful in Bach – and never dull – so my ears are always open to his one-to-a-part interpretations.

Given that two different sets of vocalists are involved I think it may be best if I make a few points about the performance of each cantata in turn. However, before that one or two general observations seem appropriate. Firstly, the Linn sound is as excellent as we have come to expect from this label and from producer/engineer Philip Hobbs. The sound is clear, present and dynamic. Yet, I have a reservation: I think the recording is balanced just a bit too closely. Perhaps that’s been done to ensure that the singers can be heard clearly in the more fully-scored movements. However, it does mean that particularly the quartet led by Mary Bevan is very immediate when singing as a group. Furthermore, the timpani sound very forceful at times, especially in the first cantata: it’s right that in movements such as the very opening one the sound of the drums is arresting but I feel the effect is overdone here. The 1987 DG Archiv recording of Gardiner’s performance places both the orchestra and the choir – the latter a larger ensemble than Butt uses – at a bit more of a distance and I prefer that. Both vocal quartets sing very well but repeated listening confirmed my initial impression that I have a slight preference for the team led by Joanne Lunn. Good though their colleagues are I prefer the individual voices in the Lunn quartet and I think that when they sing together in chorales and choruses they achieve the better blend. That said, I think to a large extent John Butt has matched his teams of singers very well to the music their asked to sing.

Even if the timpani are a bit too prominent for my taste Cantata One gets off to a splendid start, the trio of trumpets sparkling. The ripieno quartet also participates in the opening chorus. I’m not sure that the vocal ensemble is ideally balanced, though. Mary Bevan, Nicholas Mulroy and Matthew Brook all have sizeable soloistic voices and they do tend to be rather prominent. I’m not blaming them: it wouldn’t be easy to scale back their voices in such exuberant music. One snag, though, is that the alto line isn’t very audible except in the central section of the chorus where Bach eases back on the dynamics and orchestration. I wonder if the balance might have been better served if male altos with their more penetrating voices had been used.

Nicholas Mulroy is a good evangelist though his vocal style is naturally open-throated and forthright. That’s not to say he’s lacking in subtlety but he lacks the sweetness of tone and pliability of Anthony Rolfe Johnson, who sings for Gardiner. The alto is Claire Wilkinson, whose contributions to some previous Dunedin Consort recordings I’ve enjoyed. Here, however, I’m less convinced. She sings her recitative with nice expression but then ‘Bereite dich, Zion’ is a disappointment. For me, her tone is too unvaried and, frankly, rather plain. This is an aria that enjoins Zion to make ready for the Saviour but I hear no real eagerness here; the singing seems contained. I much prefer Anne Sofie von Otter on the Gardiner set; her tone is warmer and her voice is more pleasing to hear. Matthew Brook is well suited to ‘Großer Herr, o starker König’. He has a bigger voice than Olaf Bär (Gardiner). I like both performances but Brook has marginally more presence. Paul Sharp provides a splendid trumpet obbligato.

Cantata Two brings us the other quartet and so, unusually in Christmas Oratorio, a change of Evangelist. On balance Thomas Hobbs is the preferable one. His voice is lighter than Mulroy’s and his timbre is the sort that I like to hear from a tenor in Bach. I hasten to add, though, that this is a very subjective judgement. It’s a close call and it’s just as likely that some listeners may prefer Mulroy to Hobbs. Hobbs has the tricky aria, ‘Frohe Hirten’, which he sings very well indeed. His light, fresh timbre is well suited to the music and he is very agile in the passagework, especially in the middle section. The solo flautist, Katy Bircher, is wonderfully nimble too. We get a chance to hear Butt’s alternative alto, Ciara Hendrick. I’m not sure I’ve heard her before. She has a warmer tone than her alto colleague and I liked her account of ‘Schlafe, mein Liebster’.

Cantata Three restores the opening vocal team. The opening chorus is lithe and joyful. It also provides an excellent illustration of the way in which Butt sometimes deploys just his four principal singers and then, for other passages, involves the ripienists as well. Mary Bevan and Matthew Brook partner each other very effectively in the duet, ‘Herr, dein Mitleid, dein Erbarmen’. In the recitative that follows Nicholas Mulroy tells the story in an involving way but I find the sound of his voice just a bit too forthright; perhaps a slight distancing in the recoding would have helped. I’m afraid that Claire Wilkinson’s delivery of ‘Schließe, mein Herze’ is a bit too plain though she’s more expressive – and beneficially so – in the recitative that follows.

Cantata Four, for the Feast of the Circumcision, is the only one of the six in which Bach uses a pair of horns. The instruments make a super contribution to the opening chorus and since the singing of the quartet is excellent - and very well balanced – this movement is a highlight of the whole set. In the recitative with chorus, ‘Immanuel, o süßes Wort!’ I like very much the pleasing and well controlled tone of Konstantin Wolff. Incidentally, he’s the only native German speaker among the eight soloists but so far as I could tell the German of all his colleagues is very convincing. Joanne Lunn is delightful in ‘Flößt, mein Heiland’ and the echo soprano (Rachel Redmond, one of the ripienists) is good and is well-distanced. Thomas Hobbs excels in ‘Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben’; not only is he admirably dexterous in the almost unreasonably quick passagework but he enunciates the words clearly amid the forest of notes. At the end of the cantata I love the sound of the horns as they punctuate the chorale.

Cantata Five is sung by the same quartet: it’s their final appearance. They make the opening chorus eager and exultant, the fugal writing crisp and clear in delivery. Ciara Hendrick really comes into her own in this and the preceding cantata. Here her recitative in the Chorus of Wise Men is excellent. Konstantin Wolff’s voice is warm and dignified in ‘Erleucht auch meine finstre Sinnen’ and the accompanying oboe da caccia is excellent too. Once again Thomas Hobbs’ narration is very much to my taste.

Cantata Six restores Mary Bevan and her colleagues. The jubilant trumpets herald the voices at the start of the cantata and the singers, supported by the ripienists, are exhilarating in their delivery. Mary Bevan’s account of ‘Nur ein Wink’ is alert and attractive and the final aria in the oratorio, ‘Nun mögt ihr stolzen Feinde schreken’ is well suited to Nicholas Mulroy who gives a very fine account of this virtuoso piece. In the closing celebratory chorale the timpani seemed better integrated into the overall ensemble – or maybe my ears had adjusted.

Unless you have an aversion to one-to-a-part performances of Bach’s choral music you’ll find much to admire and enjoy in this excellent performance. If previously you’ve resisted the “minimal” approach to Bach then this account of Christmas Oratorio might well convert you. Not only is the singing very good and extremely stylish but also the instrumental playing from the Dunedin Consort is superb. I’ve mentioned a few obbligato contributions specifically but, in truth, every obbligato is expertly delivered and the ensemble as a whole plays very well. I liked John Butt’s way with the music very much. It’s not too often that one listens to nearly two and a half hours of music without an occasional raised eyebrow at a tempo selection but I can honestly say that didn’t happen here. Overall my preference for a small choir and soloists in this work remains but I’m certain that I shall return to John Butt’s version in the future simply for pleasure. His notes are, as ever, comprehensive, scholarly and very readable.

John Quinn



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