Bach: Magnificat, Christmas Cantata 63

Dunedin Consort, John Butt
78:00
Linn CKD469
+Gabrieli Hodie Christus natus est, organ music & congregational chorale

This is a fine presentation in the tradition of John Butt’s ‘liturgical’ performance of the Bach Johannespassion. It is a reconstruction of what Bach is likely to have produced for his first Christmas Vespers in Leipzig in 1723. John Butt uses not only his fine Dunedin Consort of singers and players, but the Peter Collins organ in Greyfriars, Edinburgh (where the recording was made) for the organ preludes – his performance of the fugue on the Magnificat is particularly fine – using a 16’ based manual organo pleno? – and a crowd of fifty five singers joining in the congregational chorale singing (from the Neu Leipziger Gesangbuch of 1682) sometimes in unison, but sometimes in parts. Some of the preludes, chorales and the liturgical end piece didn’t fit on the single CD, so although they figure in the accompanying booklet, they can only be heard as a free download: there is more of interest in John Butt’s additional material on the web as well, and it is a pity that only seven pages of his excellent material can be fitted into the 44-page booklet among the pictures and hagiography!

In addition to the chorales and organ music, the CD contains the Christmas Cantata 63, Christen ätzet diesen Tag – Bach’s only (?surviving) foray into a score with four trumpet parts, originating in a Weimar cantata from 1714 – and the earlier E flat version of the Magnificat with the insertion of the Christmas Laudes – four pieces in a simpler, rather less sophisticated style. Both the cantata and the Magnificat are played for convincing reasons at A=392 in Werkmeister III (echoes of the Dunedin’s superb Brandenburgs), bringing the E flat Magnificat to sound more like its later version in D – did the trumpeters play this version in D anyway? No parts survive.

This low pitch suits all the singers except for Clare Wilkinson, who nonetheless sings most convincingly of all. It is in her duet in 63.vii with Nicholas Mulroy, a longstanding member of the Dunedin Consort, that I became most forcefully aware of how Mulroy is in danger of becoming a member of the ‘I can, therefore I may’ brigade: he makes little attempt to match her subtle phrasing and delicate tone (though he is much better in the Et misericordia) singing mostly at full throttle. Listen to him in Verdi mode in the Deposuit, and then to the ravishing Clare Wilkinson in the Esurientes with the two recorders, and judge for yourself. A consort of singers implies a group of musicians who listen to one another, to match tone, phrasing and dynamic range. I can not infrequently hear Mulroy loud and clear over everyone else, and think this is unmusical, as well as ungracious. This apart, the singing of Julia Doyle and Joanne Lunn, Clare Wilkinson, Nicholas Mulroy and Matthew Brook is beautifully shaped and balanced and is a delight. For the Magnificat, Butt uses five ripienists with his chosen concertists – four in the cantata – and they manage the difficulties of two to a part convincingly, as do the violin players. Balance and clarity are equally good, and the Linn production team have delivered their usual excellence – save for one extraordinary blot.

There are two minor criticisms: one is that the digital bleep between tracks 16 and 17, where the end of the soprano aria in the Magnificat Quia respexit spills into omnes generationes, is audible on two of my CD players, though not all. Of course the scoring and key are different, but surely both parts of this verse could share a single track to avoid this? The other thing I noticed is that, in spite of a credit being given to a language coach, there remain some very audible discrepancies in the Latin pronunciation: Matthew Brook slips a very Italianate pronunciation of fecit in the rumbustious aria Quia fecit mihi magna, while in Fecit potentiam there is a more audibly schooled German consonant.

But these are small details in what is a very good example of John Butt’s marriage between arresting scholarship, enormous musicality – the tempi are so naturally right – and pragmatic skills: conceiving and bringing such a complex production to fruition is a huge task, and the whole disc is so coherently musical from the word go. Give it to all your friends for Christmas: this is contextual Bach at its very best.

David Stancliffe

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