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Interview: John Butt

05 July 2016

John Butt, Linn Records

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John Butt is the music director of the Dunedin Consort who continue to bring superb quality and inspiring insight to the Baroque music world. As well as the position of Gardiner Professor of Music at the University of Glasgow, John Butt was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and was appointed an OBE for his services to music in Scotland. primephonic editor Rachel Deloughry has the chance to catch up with him for a Q&A session.

How has the Dunedin Consort evolved since you joined in 2003?

Well, it has fundamentally changed from being essentially a vocal ensemble (of 5-6 core singers), which used instrumentalists only occasionally, to a fully-fledged consort that performs music of the 16th-early 19th centuries. This is centred on a group of both core singers and core instrumentalists (which can be expanded or contracted), and which can perform together or separately, depending on repertory. Our size can thus range from 3-4 performers to around 50 for large oratorios or classical repertory. The Consort, as originally founded, sang a very large range repertory and styles (including arrangements of light and popular music), but now we are much more focussed and fully centred in the field of historically-informed performance - we still do some new commissions, though, which was very much a part of the original group’s brief.

As one of the most distinguished Bach scholars of our time, you bring a priceless amount to your role as director of the Dunedin Consort. What do you feel are the most important aspects of historically informed performance practice, particularly in terms of making recordings?

In most aspects of historical performance, Bach included, I’m particularly keen on recreating possible experiences from the past. This might lie in taking the first version of a well-known piece and trying to imagine what it might have sounded like for the very first time. It also lies in recreating something of the original context for performance (whether, say, coffee-house performance, where the atmosphere might have been conditioned by ongoing discussions and disputes about current affairs, or - particularly - church liturgies, where we hear well-known pieces as part of a longer continuum). Obviously, it’s impossible to know whether my performances come anywhere near to what the original audiences heard, and it’s obviously even more impossible to create an ‘original listener’ - but I’m keen to use historical awareness as a way of discovering experiences that we might not otherwise have had. One of my broader interests is in finding ways of regenerating classical music culture in general, so using history as a source of inspiration (rather than as a measure of ‘correctness’) seems to me a very important part of that.

You are no stranger to awards, for instance Dunedin’s Linn recording of Handel’s Messiah in its original Dublin version, which won both the 2008 Midem Baroque Award and the 2007 Gramophone Award for Best Baroque Vocal Album. How was this experience for you, as the ensemble’s director?

It was certainly very flattering to get those awards for my very first recording with Dunedin and I think they helped open up possibilities for future projects that I would not otherwise have considered. Obviously, I’ve made plenty of recordings that have NOT got awards, and there is a certain arbitrariness as to who gets what. But, overall it is very encouraging to have this exposure, since it helps us to receive many more invitations to perform across Europe and beyond. I think it would be a pity if we just did recordings and only occasionally performed live - so the recordings have been a great catalyst in this regard.

What would you rank as the best recording you ever made, and what are the elements that made it so successful?

My favourite is one that we released last year - of Bach’s Magnificat and Cantata 63, performed within the original Christmas liturgy, complete with a motet, congregational singing and organ preludes. I remember as we were making it that everything clicked into place particularly well, and the overall sequence of the disc I find very pleasing aesthetically, even though it is really a liturgy and could well be used as a form of spiritual meditation. There’s also something particularly spectacular about the music - the cantata is a piece of wonderful joy and sizzling virtuosity and the Magnificat covers a remarkable range of moods and styles in a relatively short time. We always have absolutely wonderful performers, but here - again - the combination seems to be particularly inspiring.

John Butt, in conversation with Rachel Deloughry

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