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To avoid complex explanation, the artist profile of John Butt (see page 19 for our Artist Focus) refers to the Christmas Oratorio as a single, large-scale work. It is, of course, nothing of the kind, being a cycle of six cantatas for the individual feast days of the Christmas season. Thus Butt’s new recording implicitly draws to attention by employing a different set of performers for the more lightly scored cantatas (2, 4 and 5), to those who sing on the bigger pieces with trumpets and drums (1, 3 and 6), where he also adds ripieno voices to what are essentially single voice per part performances. Space does not permit individual assessment, but all perform highly creditably, as does the excellent orchestra, whose members also make many memorable concertante contributions.

The cycle gets off to a splendid start, with the opening chorus introduced by thrillingly incisive timpani and the trumpets sequentially tumbling over themselves with excitement. In the central section luminous, madrigalian textures remind us just why one-voice-per-part seems so inevitably right for this music. But the whole performance is indeed marked with the deep insight Butt invariably brings to his Bach performances.

So, yes, many of the arias have been better sung by starrier names and I wish Butt’s trumpeters had used ‘holeless’ trumpets, but ultimately there is an integrity and unity about this Christmas Oratorio that transcends such considerations.

Brian Robins Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing