Dunedin Consort, Wigmore Hall ★★★★☆
Abandoning the Hogmanay celebrations at its Edinburgh base, the Dunedin Consort spent New Year’s Eve at London’s Wigmore Hall displaying a rather Lutheran upward bow. Even so, his concert was solemn, centering on two of JS Bach’s greatest Christmas cantatas. In both research and performance work, band director John Butt always goes back to Bach.
However, Butt also made room for the curtain-raiser Antonio Caldara, slightly older than Bach, who, despite his great fame during his lifetime, fell into relative oblivion. Less remembered than his colleague from Venice, Antonio Vivaldi, Caldara could compose with similar energy, as demonstrated here by his Sinfonia in C. The three-movement work whose manuscript survives (significantly in this context by Bach) in Dresden contains a particularly lively opening of the Allegro. With blazing trumpets, the Dunedins played in a cheerful mood, while leaving room for a wonderfully sharp bassoon solo.
As Butt is famous for Bach’s performances with sparing choirs, it was no surprise that the number of musicians far outnumbered the eight singers on stage, but together they created a wonderful mix in the two cantatas Bach produced for Leipzig nearly 300 years ago. First heard on Christmas Day 1725, Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (BWV 110) progresses from a slow, rocking beginning to a jaunty chorus that unequivocally evokes the titular sentiment “Let our mouths be full of laughter.”
Tenor Hugo Hymas, who stands out among the singers, revealed the flowering of his voice in an aria in which thoughts of Heaven are illuminated by soaring flutes. The tenor/soprano duo Ehre sei Gott, based on the traditional Christmas text Glory to God in the Highest, featured soprano Jessica Cale singing nimbly despite being replaced at the last minute. The male alto James Hall provided a sweet sound and Robert Davies provided solid bass.
Depicted on Christmas Day 1723 but thought to have an earlier origin, Christen, ätzet diesen Tag (BWV 63) is the largest-scale cantata. If its title (“Christians, engrave this day”) sounds a bit solemn, there’s nothing heavy about the explosion of joy in the large-scale opening chorus, complete with four trumpets. A symmetrical work with two duets at the heart and three intertwining recitative fragments, it is full of details, not only the cello and double bass evoking a roaring lion. Instead of ending with a chorale sermon, its final chorus takes an extraordinary twist – here, a fitting end to an extraordinary musical year 2022. I
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