EIF: Dunedin | Yeol Eum Son

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

Fresh from their success with Mozart’s Mass in C at the London Proms, John Butt’s Dunedin Consort turned their attention to J S Bach for an Edinburgh Festival Queen’s Hall performance of all four Orchestral Suites. They are fascinating works, the composer drawing together prevailing features of the 18th century Italian and French styles to create a high Baroque sound that, if arguably German in character, is unarguably Bach.

Few understand that better than the excellent Dunedin players, responding to Butt’s innate knowledge of the composer and his refreshing and personable insight into Baroque performance style with complete assurance, mixed with an almost self-governing freedom and bountiful spontaneity. There wasn’t a moment in this concert where the music spoke without natural sparkle and captivating expressiveness.

What gave it all a pleasing aesthetic balance was the inherent diversity of the various suites themselves: two opulent D major ones, Nos 3 and 4 respectively, topped by glorious phalanxes of oboes and trumpets and which Butt, directing form the harpsichord, sensibly placed as the opening and closing works; the more delicately-scored C Major (No 1) and flute-dominated B minor (No 2) providing a softer, creamier centre. 

Stars emerged, but never out of context. Katy Bircher’s flute playing in the concerto-like B minor Suite was subtly prominent, the tenor of her performance proudly virtuosic yet generously integrated, tempered naturally by the delicacy of her period instrument. Minimum strings made for a sinewy, compact unit, fired by Bach’s dazzling writing and their own swashbuckling counter-play. In the larger-scaled suites, it was the martial thrill of the trumpets and timpani that blew us away. Bach as it should be, stimulating and sublime.

Tuesday’s Queen’s Hall recital by South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son came from a later time zone, the heady Romanticism of the 19th century in the wake of Beethoven. That composer’s presence was both the climax of the programme and its fundamental starting point. Son’s second half featured a single work, Beethoven’s late Sonata, the ‘Hammerklavier’, and one that must have startled its original audiences.

For this pianist it seemed to represent a logical product of the composer’s earlier, though in many cases equally provocative, sonatas. She immediately embraced the irascibility of the opening, its splintered rhetoric and impatient questioning, a beast that is never fully tamed in the volatile first movement. Her Scherzo evoked, as it should, a more even temperament, crisp and lithesome, yet still with darker shadows hovering. There was tenderness and thoughtfulness in her Adagio, more cool than ethereal, tossed brutally aside by the sheer bullishness of the closing fugue.

Leading up to all this, Son chose a series of mainly variation-type concert pieces that traced a notional lineage from Beethoven’s pupil Czerny, through his own pupil Liszt to Bizet and the troubled French piano virtuoso Alkan. It was a colourful journey, beginning with Bizet’s kaleidoscopic Variations Chromatiques, a flowering of imaginative diversions germinating from the most perfunctory of themes. 

In Czerny’s Variations on a Theme by Rode (’La Ricordanza’), Son flouted her immaculate finger precision and effortless facility, not least in a final variation sounding like stride piano before its time, but not before stilling the atmosphere with the work’s simplistic theme. Liszt’s Trancendental Study No 9, also subtitled ‘Ricordanza’, emerged almost like a postscript, yet characterised by its own expansive eloquence.

Finally, Alkan’s Variations on a Theme of Steibelt took us to the interval, its childish theme mischievously deceptive, given the ensuing maelstrom of notes that increased exponentially as Alkan’s characteristic virtuoso demands breached the near impossible. Never a problem, though, for this engaging pianist. 

Ken Walton