Christmas is traditionally a hectically busy time for musicians as ensembles and choirs big and small prepare and perform seasonal music in churches, concert halls and even shopping centres. Spare a thought for Bach’s musicians at Christmas 1734 as they performed the six parts of his Christmas Oratorio in an exhausting schedule over the twelve days of Christmas, much of it twice on the same day in Leipzig’s St Thomas and St Nicholas churches celebrating the feasts from Christ’s birth to Epiphany. In tonight’s concert, the Dunedin Consort took a traditional approach with a dozen core players, four soloists and just four additional singers making up the chorus. Under John Butt’s direction from the harpsichord, the sparse forces created a feather-light, nimble and exquisitely focussed performance simply bursting with enjoyment.

The Dunedin Consort © David Barbour
The Dunedin Consort
© David Barbour

For Christmas Day, Bach borrowed music from cantatas celebrating royal birthdays, explaining the three natural trumpets and hard stick timpani embellishing the opening chorus “Jauchzet, frohlocket” with Baroque gusto. For choruses and chorales the eight singers lined across the front of the platform, the combination of the excellent soloists making up the choir with the four ripieno singers achieving an exciting balance with the players behind, blending perfectly together and being urged on from the harpsichord. Butt was drawing choral shapes out of the air, constantly refining detail. While a pared down approach in the bigger choral numbers can rob the work of sweep and depth, it also allowed opening choruses of the cantatas at this performance (1, 4, 5 and 6) to be taken at a breath-taking, rapid pace, the sound pure, sparking and clear like the brightest Christmas morning.

We are not always told in advance which soloists will be singing with the Dunedin ensemble, so it was a delightful surprise to see a wonderful quartet of Early music voices, soprano Mary Bevan, mezzo Emilie Renard, tenor Hugo Hymas and bass-baritone Edward Grint all getting their chance to shine. Unlike the Bach Passions, where the Evangelist takes the recitative, here this duty is shared out, Hymas’ expressive, sensitive tenor and Grint’s light, lyrical baritone vividly dramatizing the Christmas stories. There was not a weak link in the arias, each one an enchanting vignette. Renard’s “Bereite dich, Zion” was a particular delight, her bright-glowing, textured alto in counterpoint to Alex Bellamy’s sinuous oboe was sung with a broadening smile as the da capo came round. Hymas took “Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben” very fast and light as a feather, Huw Daniel and Tuomo Suni’s violins chasing each other around the effervescent continuo. Grint’s warm baritone raced along in “Großer Herr, o starker König” with Paul Sharp’s lively and accurate trumpet solo.

Mary Bevan’s gorgeous soprano lifted the whole performance, topping the choruses and chorales with gloss, but showing a whole range of emotions in her solo work. Her voice opened up operatically in Part 4’s aria “Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen”, Claire Evans providing the offstage echo. Solemn and heartfelt in Part 6’s recitative “Du Falscher, suche nur den Herrn zu fällen”, Bevan was jubilant in the following aria “Nur ein Wink von seinen Händen”.

Standing to play, the Consort were on especially fine form, with virtuoso expressive solos from the two Baroque oboes and flutes, period horns for Part 4 adding a resplendent sound to the opening chorus. The continuo, often the unsung heroes, powered the whole work along at pace, Jonathan Manson’s sweet cello scattering occasional flourishes underpinned by William Hunt’s five string violone and Stephen Farr playing a tiny chamber organ. Watching the players exchange glances, turning each other’s pages and leader Huw Daniel’s dancing pointy shoes, it was obvious that they were enjoying themselves immensely, as were we the audience.

Like Bach’s musicians, the Dunediners are packing in performances, heading smartly off to London for a repeat of this concert the following night, and back to Edinburgh and Glasgow for Messiahs apiece. We were left with the sound of the trumpets ringing in our ears as they blazed in the final uplifting, joyous chorale.

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