JS Bach: Christmas Oratorio

By Kemp, Lindsay | Gramophone, November 2016 | Go to article overview

JS Bach: Christmas Oratorio


Kemp, Lindsay, Gramophone


Christmas Oratorio, BWV248 Mary Bevan, Joanne Lunn sops Clare Wilkinson, Ciara Hendrick mezs Nicholas Mulroy, Thomas Hobbs tens Matthew Brook, Konstantin Wolff bass-bars Dunedin Consort / John Butt Linn (M) (2) CKD499 (14V * DDD * T/t)

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 (Decca, 5/00), 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. …

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