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GRAMOPHONE (12/2021)
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Reviewer: David Vickers

John Butt selects an intimate triptych that illuminates different facets and functions of Bach’s well-appointed church music. Two Leipzig works from the mid1720s relate to gospel readings from St Luke on the early years of Christ’s life: a treatment of Simeon’s Nunc dimittis in Ich habe genug (1727), and the dialogue cantata Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen (1726) that mirrors the 12-year-old Jesus being found by his worried parents in the temple. These are followed by the funerary Actus tragicus for four voices, two recorders and two violas da gamba, agreed by scholars to be an early work (probably Mühlhausen, 1708). Butt’s Bachian vision offers insights aplenty but it seems he also places absolute trust in the collective wisdom of the Dunedin Consort’s small rotating squad of singers and players.

Every element in Ich habe genug feels just right – the compassionate tension of the soft strings’ lullaby motion, Alexandra Bellamy’s soulful oboe, tenderly realised keyboard continuo-playing (Butt at the harpsichord and organist James Johnstone), and cathartic fulfilment of divine promise in Matthew Brook’s endearing truthfulness. This is not run-of-the-mill melancholy but an interpretation that is humane, touching and reassuring. There is an unmistakable message of hope in the trajectory from the first aria’s solemnity, through blissful consolation in ‘Schlummert ein’ (profoundly beautiful in all respects), to contented joy in the concluding passepied.

The opening of Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen partners Joanne Lunn’s searingly emotive Soul desperately searching for Jesus with Bellamy’s cantabile oboe. Brook’s Vox Christi conveys a gentle smile, responding with loving kindness, matched by Huw Daniel’s cascading violin obbligato. The two voices’ transformative reunion is marked by a rhythmically deft and affectionately merry gavotte.

Performed at high Chorton pitch, the sonatina of the Actus tragicus has brilliant yet delicate sonorities from the pairs of recorders and violas da gamba, and softly sustained organ. Lunn, Katie Bray, Hugo Hymas and Robert Davies convey fine details, shading and texts eloquently. Solos are declaimed vividly (the duet for alto and bass is fruitier than usual), and all four sing out boldly in ensembles; there is a notch greater individual freedom and pseudooperatic directness than is usual in other one-voice-per-part recordings. Butt provides an erudite essay, and striking cover art by Kirsty Matheson was created in real time during the sessions.


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