Tag Archives: Dunedin Consort

Dunedin Consort / Hebrides Ensemble

Dunedin Consort/Hebrides Ensemble: Passio

St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh

If, as originally planned, this collaborative performance of Arvo Part’s 1982 setting of the Passion from the Gospel of St John had toured Scotland, the opportunity to hear it sung and played in different acoustics would have been very enticing.

Instead, there is just this single outing, broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and filmed for streaming from April 17. In lieu of the tour, the radio transmission certainly whets the appetite for the opportunity to watch. How are voices distributed in the vast Cathedral? And how much of the extraordinary depth to the sound is down to clever sound-mixing and microphone placement rather than the natural reverberation?

A liturgical work quite unlike any of the others heard in the Easter season, the Estonian composer asks for a very particular set of forces. The Evangelist is portrayed by a vocal quartet and an instrumental one of violin, oboe, cello and bassoon, Christ by bass Matthew Brooke, fresh from the same role in the Dunedin’s Bach St Matthew Passion, and Pilate by tenor Hugo Hymas. The St Mary’s Choir and the Cathedral organ add crucial punctuation to the narrative.

Those last elements are often in the audio foreground when they arrive, while the solo characters, while clear enough, sound some way off, as if speaking from history. The complex narrative voice of singers and instrumentalists sits in the centre, combining in different combinations. It is not clear why Part chooses certain vocal ranges and instrumental timbres to express particular Biblical verses – although emotional impact may be key – but there is a detectable technical method in his use of pitches among the players and singers in the pursuit of his “tintinnabulation” process.

If the first impression is of music that springs from the earliest chants of Part’s adopted Orthodox faith, it swiftly becomes clear that something much more contemporary is going on, even if the complexity of its harmonic structure is well-hidden behind the sometimes glacial pace. This is music that has little in common with the American minimalists with whom the composer is sometimes bracketed, altogether less showy and much more reliant on moments of silence throughout the score. The rests in the notation are as important as the notes, particularly when the role of the church’s acoustic is taken into account.

All this is beautifully measured in this performance, conducted by William Conway of the Hebrides Ensemble. The work asks a great deal of its singers, with some particularly challenging leaps in the lines sung by Hymas’s Pilate, but there is an almost studied lack of drama by comparison with the operatic Passions of Bach, even in choral interjections like the command “Crucify him!”

Part’s style of theatre requires concentration, as he homes in on a very precise definition of what constitutes the Passion story, culminating in the last uttering of Jesus on the cross “It is finished”, after which the choral response is in an altogether changed register and tone, more akin to the Lutheran chorales of Part’s upbringing. It is, however, a very understated moment of catharsis.

Keith Bruce

Dunedin Consort: St Matthew Passion

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.

Keith Bruce

Image: credit Tommy Slack/0405 Photography

Easter Passion in Perth

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

Keith Bruce

How Lonely Sits the City

Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh

Newly-appointed Associate Director of Dunedin Consort Nicholas Mulroy and Head of Artistic Planning David Lee have been at great pains to stress that this thoughtful all-vocal programme, which is available to watch until December 19, was dreamed up before the pandemic changed all our lives.

It is not difficult to see why, because although this selection of work, ancient and modern, could hardly be more appropriate for our times, to have conceived it as such might invite accusations of miserabilism.

The early music pillars of the recital are the three-sections of Orlande de Lassus’s five-part setting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and a two-part motet by William Byrd, also concerned with the allegorical Christian interpretation of the destruction of Jerusalem in the Old Testament. The 1945 work by Rudolf Mauersberger that found the same textual inspiration, and which gives the concert its title, sits in the middle.

Alongside are two works from 2009, Cecilia McDowell’s I Know That My Redeemer Liveth and James MacMillan’s Miserere, and a brand new commission in Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade’s Vigil 1.

Intended to be heard live or not, this is the choir performing together for the first time since March, and the resonance of many of the words they were given to sing must have contributed to the commitment audible from all twelve singers, four of them young new recruits. Superbly recorded by Matthew Swan, with album-release quality balance between solo voices and ensemble in every configuration required across the concert, the Dunedin has never sounded better, and that is a high bar to reach. The blend of the men’s voices in particular on the closing Miserere was beautifully captured.

While the MacMillan is already a contemporary classic and the Byrd a favourite of professional choirs, other memorable moments came in the shorter modern pieces. Although designed to sit alongside Brahms and echo Handel, there are resemblances to the popular contemporary choir staples of Eric Whitacre and Morten Lauridsen in the Edinburgh-educated McDowell’s setting of the Messiah-familiar words from the book of Job. In the Mauersberger, composed after the destruction of the chorus-master’s home city of Dresden, the technical attention to detail is particularly noticeable, both in the vocal balance and in the careful selection of camera shots to match the music. The Consort’s video partners, Arms & Legs, do another fine job here.

The Cruttwell-Reade commission will surely quickly find a place in the repertoire. Both intricate and accessible, it too looks back to earlier forms (Lutheran chorales) and has the superb device of using both the original German text of the Rilke poem and an English translation, with the ensemble split into three SATB choirs. The singers’ clarity of diction here, and indeed throughout, was faultless.

The new concert is accompanied by a 20-minute conversation between Nicholas Mulroy and Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade on the Consort’s YouTube channel. It is an exemplary introduction to a new piece of music and well-worth any music-lover’s time.
dunedin-consort.org.uk
Keith Bruce

Image: Nicholas Mulroy and Dunedin Consort at Greyfriars Kirk

Familiar faces with Dunedin Consort

Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort will be broadcasting from Greyfriar’s Kirk again this month with an all-vocal progamme, How Lonely Sits the City, streamed from Thursday November 19. (Those who haven’t yet caught its predecessor, Nature’s Voice, with soprano Rowan Pierce, have until Saturday November 14 to do so.)

The recital, which takes its title from Rudolph Mauersberger’s lament on the destruction of Dresden in 1945, will be conducted by tenor Nicholas Mulroy, who has just been named the ensemble’s first Associate Director. Mulroy’s association with the choir goes back 20 years and he has recently combined the role of soloist with directing.

The concert will also feature the debuts of the Consort’s new Bridging the Gap recruits, young singers making their first steps in the professional arena. They are baritone Tim Edmundson, tenor Sam Leggett, mezzo Hannah Leggatt and soprano Sally Carr. The young women are both alumni of the National Youth Choir of Scotland, and the men are currently studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

The programme also includes the Lamentations of Lassus, MacMillan’s Miserere, Cecilia McDowell’s I Know That My Redeemer Liveth and a new commission from Edinburgh-based Ninfea Crutwell-Reade, Vigil 1, based on a text by Rilke.

www.dunedin-consort.org.uk

Image: Nicholas Mulroy