Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh
“It is the old Old Covenant. Man you must die!” These words, set as a grim fugue in Bach’s cantata “Gottes Zeit its die allerbeste Zeit (Actus Tragicus)” BWV 1043, have perhaps a natural resonance in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirk, where the signing of the National Covenant took place in 1638, and where the Dunedin Consort marked the start of its 25th Anniversary celebrations with a welcome return to performance before a live but limited audience.
There’s an overriding calm about this work which translated into a gorgeous, relaxed warmth in Dunedin’s hands. The scoring for strings and two recorders also cut a tonal picture of softness and serenity, the focused purity of the voices colouring the cantata’s sometimes dismal message with hope and lustre.
It was a vintage Dunedin performance, director John Butt creating a magical cohesive entity out of the constituent sections, yet finding so many moments to let the music breathe, and signing off with a suitably accepting throwaway gesture. Musicality and spirituality combined in the most natural and enchanting ways, simple details such as the delicious woody quality of the chamber organ distinguishing this captivating presentation.
Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins introduced Dunedin regulars to the ensemble’s new leader, Matthew Truscott, who teamed up with Dunedin veteran Huw Daniel for the joint solo roles. Here was another inspired meeting of minds, each playing instinctively off the other, weaving the two-way musical conversation seamlessly, slickly underpinned by minimal ripieno strings. Either side of the central Largo, its artfully spun-out message loaded with unfussy sentiment, the outer movements were stylish, effortless perfection.
Against the funereal reticence of the opening cantata, the Pentecostal “O ewiges Feuer” BWV 34, with heraldic Baroque trumpets, provided a fiery, but ever-polished finish. There were gorgeously tender moments – the sublime central alto aria sung with utterly melting eloquence by Jess Dandy – but this was ultimately a statement of unquenchable optimism, as expressed in the outer choruses. The perfect message for such a heartening occasion.
Available to view for 30 days at www.dunedin-consort.org.uk
Tag Archives: Bach
Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh
Perth Concert Hall
It is not only in its three-hour duration that Bach’s St Matthew Passion is an epic undertaking, and the hiatus of last year’s cancellation – the first victim of the coronavirus lockdown at Perth Concert Hall – has had the useful effect of reminding us just how important is the Dunedin Consort’s annual performance. As the choir’s chief executive Jo Buckley points out in her introductory remarks to this “as live” stream to start Perth programmer James Waters’ Easter Festival, it is a work that contains every possible human emotion and there is an added poignancy this Easter to its message of hope and salvation.
More than that though, this concert hall presentation, with all the required social distancing, makes the remarkable ingredients of Bach’s masterwork apparent in ways that could not have been predicted. There is a clarity about the ingenious storytelling, and use of the narrative voices, both musical and in the cast of characters, that is very special indeed.
Most obviously that is in the way the concert looks, with its two choruses, two orchestras and soloists, as well as how it sounds, the Perth hall’s wonderful acoustic beautifully recorded, a full, rich instrumental sound (no period instrument weediness here), and the singers placed in widescreen stereo across the stage. With effective and undistracting lighting, the video work is understated, usually (but not obsessively) matching the voices and instruments to be heard, with the occasional cross-fade as arias are accompanied by soloists or conductor John Butt directs a particular transition.
He has an A-team to conduct: Andrew Tortise is a measured and dramatic Evangelist with immaculate diction, and Matthew Brook a weighty and compelling Christus. However, it is the early outings of the women soloists that really make you sit up, alto Jess Dandy accompanied by the pair of flutes, soprano Jessica Leary stepping out of the second chorus and Anna Dennis just as expressive in partnership with the oboes. The other three solo voices, bass Benedict Nelson, tenor David Lee, and alto Judy Brown are no less impressive when their opportunities come around.
It is the clever matching of the arias, providing the commentary of the faithful on the Passion story with the singers who have been characters in that narrative, that is so spectacularly clear here. This is Butt’s Bach scholarship made flesh in a way that anyone coming to the work for the first time will instantly appreciate.
The conductor takes his time over his tale, with none of the regulation briskness that can blight historically-informed performance, secure in the knowledge that Bach’s version of Matthew’s telling of the Easter story is unique on its own terms. Similarly, there is nothing clinical in the playing of featured instrumentalists like flautist Katy Bircher and first violin Huw Daniel or in any of the singing, with the occasional natural imprecision enhancing the narrative flow.
If the restrictions of social distancing have no negative effect on any of the individual elements, it is also impossible to detect any diminishing in the ensemble instrumental sound, or the varied colours of the continuo – to which Butt adds chamber organ – or those moments when the two choirs combine for the glorious punctuation of Bach’s chorales.
That hymn-tune may be the ear-worm of the work but this Passion could hardly be less austere and presbyterian. It is the operatic quality of this oratorio for which this concert performance decisively argues the case.
Image: credit Tommy Slack/0405 Photography
The intrepid Dunedin Consort, whose early lockdown adventures provided the only authentic example of the currently much-invoked “Dunkirk Spirit”, will not be permitting the continuing health emergency to cancel this Easter’s performance of Bach’s epic St Matthew Passion.
With Andrew Tortise as the Evangelist and Matthew Brook as Christus, the ensemble will be presenting a streamed performance of the work on the evening of Saturday March 27 to launch Perth Concert Hall’s Easter festival of classical music.
Broadcast via Vimeo, the concert will be directed by John Butt from the organ, and available to view for a month, with tickets priced at £11.50 per receiving device, including booking fee.
The Dunedin Passion precedes four recitals from Perth featuring musicians from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the award winning Maxwell String Quartet. Running at 1pm from Tuesday April 6 to Friday April 9, in partnership with BBC Radio 3, they will also be available to view in the same way and for the same charge.
The series begins with pianist Steven Osborne playing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time with soloists from the SCO and continues with clarinettist Maximiliano Martin and pianist Scott Mitchell, the Maxwell Quartet playing Haydn and Beethoven, and pianist Susan Tomes and members of the RSNO with quintets by Mozart and Beethoven.
Full details of the concerts from the Perth Concert Hall website: horsecross.co.uk
City Halls, Glasgow
At a time when we’re all depending on digital expertise to beam music performance into our homes, you’d expect the BBC to lead the way. But what we got on Thursday evening from this live streaming of the BBC SSO under Sir Mark Elder was anything but a technical showcase.
Initial production was shambolic. We experienced the opening countdown and snatches of pre-performance “off air” conversation by the technical team and presenter; an explosive vocal interjection mid-Bach Brandenburg Concerto No 1; and a pre-recorded conversation with conductor Sir Mark Elder that went missing, the lengthy gap filled only momentarily with a brief apology. The faults were still there Friday morning.
All of which seemed to cast a nervous shadow over a Bach performance that took time to settle, but even when it did – most convincingly in the delicate interplay of the slow movement, the sparkling horn insubordination that is the work’s distinctive signature, and the woodwind finesse that coloured so many concertante moments – never really established sustained confidence in its style and delivery.
Fortunes changed instantly with the shift to Stravinsky’s abstract ballet score, Danses concertantes, a tangible sense of composure now providing the bedrock for a performance that captured the energising tension implicit in Stravinsky’s neoclassical writing, where rhythmic constraint and glittering artifice collide with incendiary results.
There was a stored intensity in Elder’s gestures that sent all the right signals to the players, just enough instruction to inspire a taut, alert ensemble, but which crucially handed ultimate responsibility to them to deliver the quality goods. The outcome was tart, snappy, often burlesque, laced with melodious tenderness at all the right moments.
Franz Schreker’s Chamber Symphony provided a substantial finale to the programme, transporting us to a very different 20th century world: that of a composer steeped in the Zeitgeist of fin-de-siecle Vienna, and a musical style in tune with the hot-scented modernism of Berg and hangover of opulent Strauss and rustic Mahler.
Elder’s fondness for this 1916 work surfaced from the word go, its faint opening allusions to Impressionism instantly cast aside as the restless narrative took hold. What unfolded was a performance rich in expressive yearning, from angst to frivolity, from shimmers of spectral luminescence to heightened surges that tugged mercilessly at the heart strings.
What’s more, as a ravishing example of its time, memories of the concert’s earlier transmission problems were almost forgotten.