Dunedin Consort / Whelan

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

The manifestation of the Dunedin Consort, as presented last week, was intriguing in itself. Many will be able to cast their minds back to the Consort’s early days as an a cappella choir in the 1990s, happily flirting with Josquin to Stockhausen and all that lies between. 

Successive refits, not least by current artistic director John Butt, saw the introduction of a regular supportive instrumental wing, a superlative period band filling the gap left by the defunct Scottish Early Music Consort, and which is already a noted entity for its five-star performances at home and abroad.  

What we witnessed in Glasgow on Saturday (between its Perth and Edinburgh dates) represented a further nudge towards genre self-identification as the Dunedin instrumentalists, under bassoonist-turned-conductor Peter Whelan, shifted their focus to early Haydn and CPE Bach. This wasn’t unfamiliar music – the three linked Haydn symphonies, Le matin, Le midi and Le soir, plus a cello concerto by JS Bach’s most prominent son – but when presented with such flirtatious gamesmanship the deep sense of musical adventure and discovery was deliciously infectious.

There was showmanship, too: the natural horn players standing ceremoniously, their instruments held vertically, the bells pointing skywards; a wicked double bass solo driven by the same spotlit panache you’d expect from a rock guitarist; but more than anything, a palpable buzz arising from performances fired by a sense of daring interplay and energising intimacy. 

Whelan’s nimble direction was as authoritative as it was liberating. He fired out pointed signals from the harpsichord when necessary, but generally left the detailed initiative with the players. Thus the slow “awakening” in Le Matin generating a potent vulcanism of its own (think on to Haydn’s later, more expansive representation of Chaos in The Creation) and a launchpad into that symphony’s breezy optimism; the more stately mannerisms of Le midi, whose operatic flourishes nonetheless filled this performance with heady rapture; or the extremes of light and shade that swept towards the tempestuous finale of Le soir.

In every case, there was sparkling virtuosity: the gentle fruitiness of the flutes, the jostling debates among the strings, the martial resplendence of the horns, and an all-round, stylish excitability that allowed key solo elements to emerge and retreat with seamless relevance. This was teamwork par excellence.

Even Jonathan Manson’s solo presence in CPE Bach’s Cello Concerto in A major was democracy at work. The Edinburgh-born cellist – with a memorable history of consummate Baroque performances for Dunedin – rose to the challenge with playing that was dexterous, crisp and articulate, yet rounded by gorgeously supple, expressive polish, and an awareness that not every moment depended on him. The interaction on stage was intoxicating, the entire evening a cocktail of delights.

Ken Walton