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Butt renews his forces, with excellent results
on 30 March 2013
John Butt has previously made records of St. Matthew Passion and the B minor Mass that impressed me by their combination of rigorous scholarship and strong musicianship. Yet my pleasure in listening to them was greatly limited by weaknesses in the performing team. Like any locally-based Music Director, Butt had to make do with what he had available - just like Bach himself. I am delighted to report that the Dunedin Consort in this performance has been substantially refreshed, with excellent results.
Butt follows the modern tradition, begun by Andrew Parrott, of performing St. John Passion with minimal forces, as Bach seems to have done. The highly competent band is one-to-a-part (except for doubled violins), and the four principal singers sing everything, with some doubling from four ripienists. Thus the first tenor sings the Evangelist, the tenor arias, and the tenor part in all the choruses; the first bass Christus, the bass arias, and so on. To those used to choral society performances this must seem a strange idea, but a small expert force makes for an agile and expressive rendition, if well directed, as it is here; and four voices can make a suprisingly large amount of noise.
There is much competition in the Bach passion market, so we have to ask the crass question: what are Butt's USPs? They are twofold. First, it's an emotive performance - passionate, we might say. Much of this is led by the Evangelist, Nicholas Mulroy, who sings with great energy, very heart-on-sleeve. He's a bit much for me, but many will love his approach . Second, the performance is presented in a liturgical context - nothing too heavy, just organ preludes and congregational hymns (plus a sermon available to download!). One would not always listen to the extra bits, but I found it helpful not to step straight into that strange first chorus from cold.
If, like me, you have admired Butt's previous efforts (in Handel as well as Bach) but thought that his principal singers were simply not good enough, you will be as pleased as I have been to discover that on this set intention and delivery are well matched, with admirable results.