Dunedin Consort / Butt

Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

There can have been few occasions when Scots devotees of the countertenor voice have been able to hear three examples of the unique timbre of such singing in as many weeks. Yet, following Lawrence Zazzo and Matt Paine in the opera roles of Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Refugee in Jonathan Dove’s Flight, the Dunedin Consort’s 25th birthday concert featured a superb performance by James Hall in works by a composer to whom both 20th century works owe a debt, Henry Purcell.

In a programme curated by the leader of the instrumental ensemble, Matthew Truscott, the choice of the three Purcell Odes in which Hall’s voice figured prominently to mark the anniversary might have been lyrically appropriate – hymning the patron saint of music and celebrating the late 17th century birthdays of Purcell’s royal patrons – but did amount to missionary work for even informed lovers of early music. It was often best not to pay too close attention to the nonsense the singers were required to spout, and give full concentration to the notes, as well as the clever way Truscott’s choices – directed from the harpsichord by the incisive and precise John Butt – built the concert’s musical momentum.

The appetiser for the ensemble pieces was Purcell’s brief setting of John Dryden’s Music for a While, sung in perfectly pure tones by soprano Julia Doyle, before Hall was to the fore in the Ode that gave the recital its title, Welcome to all the Pleasures. With Christopher Fishburn’s text taking a very personal approach to praising St Cecilia, we had then heard the best of the poetry, married to some startlingly daring harmonies for the era, tenor Thomas Hobbs and bass Robert Davies also crucial solo voices, the latter intoning the saint’s name memorably at the work’s close.

The challenge of the opening line of the following work, Why, why are all the muses mute?, is met by Purcell rather than the anonymous librettist, with the instrumental “Symphony” that followed including one of those melodies that has found a recurring home in modern popular music and turns out to have been the work of England’s early music genius.

With fine solos for the male voices, the Ode also contains captivating duet writing, concluding with one pairing Davies with fellow bass baritone Edward Grint.

Alongside its prowess in recordings as well as in concert, a significant development in the work of the Dunedin in its quarter century has been to give instrumental music its due alongside the choral work. Handel’s Suite in D for solo trumpet and strings and the first of Corelli’s Opus 6 Concerti Grossi were territory more often explored, with a perfect balance between Paul Sharp’s natural trumpet and the ensemble in the former. The Corelli may be far from virtuosic but it was a lovely showcase for Truscott’s string ensemble.

A trumpet fanfare opened the Purcell Arise my Muse with which the programme triumphantly ended, the choir boosted to eight voices and winds joining the band. The line between recitative and aria is hard to draw in much of this music, and Hobbes, in his filigree soloing, and Hall, in combination with the pair of recorders, made the most of that ambiguity in their contributions – but it was the sound of the massed forces (all 20 of them!) in the excellent Greyfriars’ acoustic that was the chief birthday treat.

The concert is repeated at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery this evening.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Countertenor James Hall