Traditionally the Dunedin Consort and their conductor John Butt perform Handel’s Messiah at this time of year. At home in Scotland, those concerts have been taking place as usual, but for their pre-Christmas visit to London’s Wigmore Hall (they return there on New Year’s Eve) the main work in the programme was Die Weihnachtshistorie (The Christmas Story) by Heinrich Schütz.
Composed in 1660, this retelling of the nativity tale is a product of Schütz’s old age. As Butt’s performance showed, it’s a wonderfully restrained, economical piece, requiring just 10 singers and an ensemble of strings, wind and continuo, lasting about 40 minutes. There are no grand choruses or lengthy expressive arias; the main burden of the storytelling is left to a tenor evangelist, whose recitative narration is fleshed out in a series of brief aria-like “intermediums” for the protagonists.
It’s a music drama in which less consistently means more, with the instrumental detail quietly touched in; a pair of violins accompany the Angel, a solo dulcian (an early bassoon) underpins the trio of basses who are the magi; just a brief shudder of strings signals Herod’s murderous intentions. Nicholas Mulroy was the nicely detached, never histrionic evangelist, his delivery of the German text always perfectly clear; Joanne Lunn was the soprano angel, delivering the good news to the shepherds; the bass Michael Mofidian made Herod’s brief contribution, with its attendant cornetti, really count.
Earlier the Italianate origins of Schütz’s style were explored in a series of mostly seasonal motets by his teachers, Giovanni Gabrieli and Monteverdi, as well as by Schütz himself and Alessandro Grandi. Butt and his choir presented them with just one singer to a part ensuring that the sound was always robust, and the personality of each, carefully distinct, whether in the bounding alleluias of Schütz’s Hodie Christus Natus Est, the weightless energy of Monteverdi’s Laudate Pueri Dominum, or most strikingly of all, in drawing out the keening phrases of Grandi’s Plorabo Die Ac Nocte, and relishing every passing dissonance.