Monday 18 December 2017

Small forces, big ideas: the Dunedin Consort in Bach's Christmas Oratorio

John Butt & the Dunedin Consort in rehearsal at the Wigmore Hall (photo Dunedin Consort)
John Butt & the Dunedin Consort in rehearsal
at the Wigmore Hall (photo Dunedin Consort)
Bach Christmas Oratorio, parts 1,4,5,6; Mary Bevan, Emilie Renard, Hugo Hymas, Edward Grint, the Dunedin Consort, John Butt; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 16 2017 Star rating: 4.5
Intimate and immediate, Bach's Christmas journey in an evening of vital music making

To re-capture the full original effect of Bach's Christmas Oratorio would require us to perform the works spread across the Octave of the Nativity, in the way that Bach did when the work was new in 1734. Of course, the music wasn't strictly new in 1734, much of it was re-cycled from secular cantatas, and it is this that gives the work much of its gloriously festal charm.

Most groups perform a selection, and at the Wigmore Hall on Saturday 16 December 2017 John Butt and the Dunedin Consort gave us Parts 1,4,5,6 which cover the journey to Bethlehem & the Birth of Christ, his receiving of his Name, Herod's search for the Christ Child and the arrival of the Magi. We didn't get the shepherds and their wondering music, but the selection mean that we heard less frequently performed parts 4 and 5.

In other ways, Butt's performance evoked Bach's early ones, as Butt used relatively slender forces. We had four soloists, Mary Bevan, Emilie Renard, Hugo Hymas, and Edward Grint who also sang in the chorales and choruses with four additional singers, and an instrumental ensemble of 19; though Bach uses his resources sparingly and the trumpets and drums do not occur in the same cantatas as the horns.

The result, for all the crowd on the Wigmore Hall platform, had great intimacy and immediacy. This wasn't a grand, orchestral account of the work, instead Butt and his performers relied on a great sense of character, playing and singing with vibrant verve. This was one of the few occasions when the opening to the first cantata, 'Jauchzet, frohlocket', in which Bach contrasts blocks of sound from strings, trumpets and flutes, really worked as the differences in relative volume of these instruments was balanced by the vibrant intensity of the playing. My only cavil, one which occurs in most concert hall performances, was the relatively discreet organ sound, I long for performances of Bach's cantatas which use an organ comparable to his own in Leipzig.

With the eight singers of the chorus strung out in a line along the front of the stage, communication was not ideal and I was aware of singers at the ends of the line leaning in slightly to see John Butt. Yet, close your eyes and you were not aware of this, the performance engaged you fully. There was never any sense of being short changed by having just eight singers, in all the choruses from the opening 'Jauchzt, frohlocket'' to 'Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde schauben' which opens the final part, the singing and playing was full of vitality, vivacity and character taking the place of sheer volume. In the chorales, the performance was sober and grave, yet not slow, with good attention to the words and of course, here Bach sometimes brought things alive with his orchestrations.

For the recitative chorale numbers, we had the chorale melody sung by Mary Bevan alone in the Parts 1 and 3, turning the pieces into striking duets between Bevan's lyrically expressive line, and Edward Grint's darkly, characterful recitative.

The bulk of the recitative was, of course, sung by the Evangelist figure, tenor Hugo Hymas. He was lyrically expressive but perhaps used too much voice at the expense of the text, though his performance developed during the evening and he had moments of bringing great drama to the piece.

Mary Bevan was lyrically passionate in her aria in Part 4, 'Flosst, mein Heiland'. She and Hugo Hymas complemented each other beautifully in 'Ach, wenn wird die Zeit ercheinen?' in Part 5, their vividly passionate duet turning into a trio with Emilie Renard. Bevan's aria in Part 6, 'Nur ein Wink' was full of character, accompanied by vigorous strings.

Emilie Renard brought real gravity to her arioso in Part 1, with wonderful accompaniment from the oboes, and a dancing lilt to the subsequent artia, 'Bereite, dich, Zion'.

Hugo Hymas' aria in Part 2, 'Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben' was taken at quite a lick, with wonderfully vigorous string accompaniment. Hymas' passage work was technically impressive, but he did not quite manage to bring the same expressive articulation to it that the two solo strings did. In Part 6, Hymas was attractively lyrical in his accompanied recitative, though I would have liked him to project the meaning of the words more, and yet he was wonderfully engaging in the subsequent aria.

Edward Grint was powerful and quite sober in 'Grosser Herr' in Part 1, he did not bring the swagger to the aria that some singers do, but instead gave us a sober attention to the words. In his Part 5 aria, 'Da das der Konig Herodes', Grint's grainy lyricism was complemented with a lovely oboe solo, though I wondered whether Grint could have brought out the sheer drama of the words more.

As ever, I was aware of the limits of rehearsal time; with the sheer amount of music required of the soloists (arias, recitatives, chorales and choruses) there were moments when eyes seemed a little more fixed on the copy than was ideal. And whilst the evening was full of vital and engaged music making, the singers did not always project this visually and there were few smiles in the celebratory choruses.

But overall this was a strongly characterised and wonderfully vital account of Bach's Christmas journey. We started with the festal trumpets and drums of 'Jauchzet, frohlocket' and these returned for the glorious final chorale (with some impressive trumpet playing), between the two we were taken on Bach's journey through the Christmas story in a way which was highly personal, rather intimate and always fully engaged.

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