John Butt could fairly be described as a true Renaissance man in the world of period performances. Conductor, organist, harpsichordist, educator, pioneering researcher and scholar, he and the Edinburgh based group, the Dunedin Consort, that he directs have extended and enriched our understanding of many masterpieces of the Baroque repertoire. His award winning recordings of Bach, Handel and Mozart choral and instrumental works have been revelatory for many in the way that they contextualise familiar works in order to present them in a new light.
On this superb new release Bach's 'Magnificat' BWV 243a and Cantata 'Christen, ätzet diesen Tag' BWV 63 are placed within a reconstruction of the composer's first Christmas Vespers given in the Nikolaikirche, Leipzig on 25th December 1723—a fascinating and brilliantly executed concept.
The disc begins with the Giovanni Gabrieli Motet 'Hodie Christus natus est' for eight voices arranged in two separate choirs. The eight singers of the Dunedin Consort deliver it with their usual excellent intonation and clear diction over a firm organ accompaniment. This is followed by the brief Organ Prelude 'Gott, durch deine Güte' BWV600 played by John Butt, who also performs three more of these Preludes during the course of the Vespers.
The opening chorus of the Christmas Cantata, a work composed around 1713-15 almost ten years before Bach reached Leipzig, then bursts forth joyously with its magnificent use of four trumpets (the only time Bach used this number) three oboes and drums. The exquisite singing of the contemplative aria 'Gott, du hast es wohl gefüget' with its meltingly beautiful obbligato oboe is one of the many highlights of this performance, but every member of the Dunedin Consort acquit themselves with the utmost distinction. The uplifting final chorus punctuated again with celebratory trumpets and drums brings this most exhilarating performance to a triumphant close.
Between two further Organ Preludes (BWV606 and BWV733) that evidence the power and quality of sound obtainable from the fine 1990 Peter Collins instrument in the Greyfriars Kirk, the soloists of the Dunedin Consort are joined by an additional fifty-five singers for the singing of the Congregational Chorale 'Vom Himmel hoch', and what a thrilling sound they make!
We now reach Bach's 'Magnificat' BWV243a which is performed here in its original version of 1723 not the more familiar one that the composer made ten years later. John Butt in the accompanying notes cogently outlines the many differences (especially in instrumentation) between the two versions, the most obvious being the transposition down from E flat to D major in the 1733 version. Equally striking is the interpolation of four 'Laudes' at various points in the work. These are settings of seasonal hymns that outline the Christmas story and are an apt addition to the performance. The 'Magnificat' BWV 243 is familiar as one of Bach's most dramatic and exuberant creations, but the Dunedin's fresh and rhythmically buoyant account of the earlier version given here is quite special and certainly deserves wider dissemination. A final Organ Prelude BWV603 is followed by a rousing account of the second Congregational Chorale 'Puer natus in Bethlehem' to complete this inspiring Vespers recording.
Greyfriars Kirk seems to provide the perfect acoustic setting for this marvellous release, and the engineering by Philip Hobbs is exemplary. The multi-channel recording conveys a beautifully clear and well balanced sound picture that allows the many antiphonal effects to be experienced to the full. The scale of the large choruses and as well as the more intimate sections of both the 'Magnificat' and the 'Cantata' are vividly captured in demonstration worthy sound.
This being Linn we are assured of quality liner notes, here provided by John Butt, and full texts and translations are also included. In all respects this is one of the most enjoyable releases that I have encountered this year and cannot recommend too highly. Definitely a disc to put right at the top of your Christmas shopping list.