Jess Dandy and Malcolm Martineau

Perth Concert Hall

The chief executive of Horsecross, the organisation that runs Perth’s Concert Hall and Theatre, spoke for everyone in the room when Nick Williams said that the sooner he can welcome audiences back to regular events the better. For the moment, however, there were not that many of us in the room.

As hopefully came across on BBC Radio 3’s live broadcast, what we lacked in numbers (the hall’s capacity capped at 100 to maintain two metres’ social distancing), we made up for in enthusiasm. This was, by any measure, an historic occasion. Not since mid-March 2020 had people paid to gather indoors in Scotland to listen to music: we were members of Audience No. 1 of the post-Covid era, if fortune should smile.

“Live and Unlocked” is how Perth has billed this series of four lunchtime concerts, and this first one also kicked off a Scottish presence on the BBC network this week. Like myself, many in the hall and listening on the radio would know Jess Dandy best for her singing of early choral repertoire. Her distinctive contralto voice was a crucial ingredient of the Dunedin Consort’s St Matthew Passion online from this same venue at the end of March.

If this recital was partially designed to show her versatility beyond that, it was a huge success. As she eloquently explained to Radio 3 presenter Ian Skelly, its origins lay in noting that words written in the 16th century have inspired composers from then until now to set them to music. The hour-long concert took us from John Dowland to Joseph Horovitz, whose 1970 setting of Lady Macbeth’s speeches from Acts 1, 2 and 5 of Shakespeare’s tragedy as Lady Macbeth – A Scena is a short one-woman opera of the character’s story.

Shakespeare’s words and inspiration were a constant thread through the programme, but there was also room for the poetry of Ben Jonson and Sir Philip Sidney as well as Robert Schumann’s late work setting the five suspiciously-autobiographical poems attributed to Mary Queen of Scots, which form a mini-opera of their own.

It was also very thoughtfully sequenced, with music by French composers Ravel, Poulenc, Berlioz and Gounod interrupted by a reading of poetry from Hamlet to precede Berlioz’s Ballade La Mort d’Ophelie. The hymn-like cadences of Gounod’s setting of Sidney’s sonnet of devotion My True Love Hath My Heart sat perfectly before the hymns and prayers – and desperate letter – of the Schumann songs.

If Dandy seemed to take a couple of songs to move into top gear, she was full of confidence and style for the rest of the programme, which became more demanding as it went on. The same might be said of the piano parts, but Malcolm Martineau was his usual sparkling self throughout, as the perfect foil in the most dramatic works.

With two of Dominick Argento’s Six Elizabethan Songs, we were most clearly in the business of crossing the centuries in both melody and backing, while Korngold’s settings of lyrics from Shakespeare’s plays are clearly of their own era. One could perhaps argue that they most aptly suited the “cabaret seating” that kept the audience socially-distanced, but this was Broadway, not Berlin. Nonetheless, Martineau and Dandy had great fun with Under the Greenwood Tree and Where Birds Do Sing.

Keith Bruce

Available on BBC Sounds