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 Recording of the Week  Bach's Christmas Oratorio from John Butt and Handel's Messiah from Andrew Davis

John Butt
John Butt

This week, as we round the corner onto the final straight towards Christmas, two completely contrasting approaches to Baroque authenticity seem to present themselves as a natural chalk-and-cheese pairing. Earlier in the year we spoke to John Butt about the Dunedin Consort’s marvellous Christmas Oratorio – bringing the Consort’s signature small-choir sound to the six Advent and Christmas cantatas that make up this most festive of Bach’s works.

Having heard their Matthew and John Passion and Magnificat, I was expecting a similarly polished performance, and I wasn’t disappointed. The opening has just as much drive and energy as a more “usual” large-choir performance, and benefits hugely in terms of the clarity of the vocal lines. This clarity and precision isn’t limited to the singers, either – the flurries of scales in the first movement are neatly executed (including some excellently pointed staccato playing from the bassoon).

One thing that’s frequently said in the context of authentically performed Bach – to the extent that it’s almost a cliché – is that much of his music has its roots in the dance genres of his time. This is, of course, true, but often it’s only true “on paper” – one doesn’t really feel it in performance. Not so with Butt’s interpretation here – there’s a sense that everyone involved in the music is taking their tempo and phrasing from those innately-felt pulses or dance-steps, rather than simply observing a beat.

Although the vocal soloists, as always, acquit themselves magnificently (particularly considering their doubly heavy duties in singing the chorus parts as well!), I would be remiss if I didn’t also single out the trumpet playing for particular praise. The opening and closing movements of the first and last cantatas require supreme agility and lightness of touch, and that’s exactly what we get – the icing on the cake, for me at least.

Andrew Davis
Andrew Davis

If you are a devotee of authentically-performed music, you may (as I hinted above) wish to stop reading now, as the other half of this week’s double bill gleefully tears up the last fifty years of historically-informed scholarship and dances a merry jig on the scraps. Andrew Davis’s new orchestration of Messiah is either, depending on your point of view, an act of unpardonable musical blasphemy or a gloriously tongue-in-cheek tribute to a well-loved masterpiece.

To give you some feel for the changes made, not only are horns, clarinets and trombones present; so also is the entire percussion department, kitchen sink and all. Side-drum, marimba, harp and xylophone all make appearances, and the crowning glory is the tam-tam crash that opens Worthy is the Lamb. This scoring might sound excessive, but I should stress that these extras are not over-used – the “bonus” percussion is used sparingly, and the overall effect is just of a lush, Romantic orchestration rather than of forced aural gimmickry.

This album divided opinion in the Presto office more sharply than anything I can remember, musical or otherwise, but in a few short paragraphs I feel I ought to fight its corner. Quite apart from being gloriously fun (the only album released all year that made me grin like the Cheshire Cat while listening to it), I am convinced that it’s actually a valid and significant musical work. The point of Messiah is surely to portray the Christmas (and indeed the Christian) story colourfully, dramatically and joyfully, and Davis simply capitalises on the fact that the orchestral palette has expanded enormously since Handel’s time.

I have a strong suspicion that for every authenticist who may pour scorn on Davis’s sacrilege, there’ll be a carefully-hidden, guiltily-enjoyed copy of this disc on a shelf somewhere. This full-fat banquet of festive camp is entirely true to the celebratory spirit of the original; it’s absolutely as much fun, and absolutely as legitimate, as the supremely authentic Dunedin Christmas Oratorio. Give it a go!

Bach, J S: Christmas Oratorio, BWV248

Mary Bevan & Joanne Lunn (sopranos), Ciara Hendrick (mezzo), Clare Wilkinson (alto), Nicholas Mulroy & Thomas Hobbs (tenors), Matthew Brook & Konstantin Wolff (basses), Dunedin Consort, John Butt

Available Format: 2 CDs

Handel: Messiah - New Concert Edition by Andrew Davis

Erin Wall (soprano), Elizabeth DeShong (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), John Relyea (bass-baritone), Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Andrew Davis

Available Formats: 2 SACDs, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC