Dunedin Consort, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆
Forsaking the Hogmanay celebrations of its Edinburgh base, the Dunedin Consort spent New Year’s Eve at London’s Wigmore Hall presenting a rather more Lutheran knees-up. But its concert was celebratory nevertheless, focusing on two of JS Bach’s most magnificent Christmas cantatas. Both in his scholarly and performance work, the ensemble’s director John Butt always comes back to Bach.
Butt, however, also made room for a curtain-raiser by Antonio Caldara, a slightly older contemporary of Bach who, despite great renown in his lifetime, has slipped into relative obscurity. Less well remembered than his fellow Venetian Antonio Vivaldi, Caldara could compose with similar energy, as his Sinfonia in C showed here. A three-movement work whose manuscript survives (tellingly, in this Bach context) in Dresden, it features an especially lively opening Allegro. With trumpets blazing, the Dunedins played in buoyant high spirits, while allowing space for a wonderfully pungent bassoon solo.
Since Butt is famous for his Bach performances with pared-down choral forces, it was little surprise that the players far outnumbered the eight singers on stage, yet together they produced a splendid blend in the two cantatas produced by Bach for Leipzig nearly 300 years ago. First heard on Christmas Day 1725, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (BWV 110) moves from a slowly swaying start into a jaunty chorus that unequivocally evokes the “Let our mouth be full of laughter” sentiment of its title.
Standing out among the singers, the tenor Hugo Hymas disclosed a bloom at the top of his voice in an aria where thoughts of Heaven are illuminated by soaring flutes. The tenor-soprano duet Ehre sei Gott, based on the traditional Christmas text Glory to God in the highest, introduced the soprano Jessica Cale, singing nimbly despite being a last-minute replacement. The male alto James Hall supplied sweet tone and Robert Davies was the solid bass.
Presented on Christmas Day 1723 but thought to have earlier origins, Christen, ätzet diesen Tag (BWV 63) is a cantata on the grandest scale. If its title (“Christians, engrave this day”) sounds a little solemn, there is nothing heavy about the explosion of joy in the large-scale opening chorus, complete with four trumpets. A symmetrical work with two duets at its heart and three interspersing passages of recitative, it is full of detail, not least the cello and double-bass evocation of a roaring lion. Instead of closing with a sermonising chorale, its final chorus makes extraordinary twists and turns – here, a fitting end to 2022’s unusual musical year. JA
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