Bach Magnificat: Christmas Cantata 63

Reconstruction of Bach's first Christmas Vespers in Leipzig

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ALBUM TITLE: Bach Magnificat: Christmas Cantata 63
WORKS: Bach: Magnificat; Cantata Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63; Organ preludes; Gabrieli: Hodie Christus natus est
PERFORMER: Dunedin Consort/John Butt


Having already recorded Bach’s St John Passion in the revelatory context of a Lutheran Good Friday Vespers service, John Butt and his Dunedin Consort now turn their reconstructive gaze on Bach’s first Christmas in Leipzig, in 1723. He offers a similarly absorbing liturgical framework for the musical stars of the Christmas Day Vespers: Cantata Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63 and the elaborate Magnificat in its E flat incarnation complete with the four seasonal interpolations favoured in Leipzig. Organ preludes, congregational hymn singing, collects and blessing all work their enriching spell, but the experience isn’t quite as immersive as it was in the St John Passion because the constraints of disc length mean that some tracks have to be accessed as free downloads. Unavoidable, but disruptive – though as a Christmas present the Dunedins spare us the downloadable sermon, the centre-piece of the service.


What remains on disc, however, is undeniably compelling. An eight-part Gabrieli motet underlines the important role Italian music played in the life of the German church; flamboyantly improvised organ curlicues punctuate the congregational chorales; while the organ preluding engineers an undeniable theatricality – especially when Butt’s magisterial account of the Magnificat fugue yields without pause to the quivering, ecstatic joy of BWV 243a’s opening chorus, a coup de théâtre rehearsed in the John Passion recording. What follows is a holistically conceived, beautifully paced, exhilaratingly executed performance that never allows the interpolated laudes to sound like cuckoos in the nest. The Virga Jesse is a delight, incidentally, and makes up for some uneasy compositional jolts in the Gloria in excelsis Deo. Paul Riley