Tag Archives: Dunedin Consort

Songs of Wars I Have Seen

New Auditorium, RSNO Centre, Glasgow 

You just wonder which came first: the RSNO and Dunedin Consort dreaming up their intriguing initiative to work together creating a subsidiary partnership series within the former’s main season; or whether such hybrid works as Heiner Goebbels’ Songs of Wars I Have Seen – which integrates period instruments with modern – sparked the idea of this slightly madcap collaboration in the first place.

Either way, Saturday’s mongrel presentation in the more intimate RSNO nerve-centre, the New Auditorium, within Glasgow Royal Concert Hall provided both a sense of respite within the RSNO’s heavy duty symphonic output, and an evangelical platform for the excellent Dunedin players (strings and continuo) to showcase their stylistic versatility to a more diverse audience.

The work, itself, was thoroughly refreshing – a 19-strong mixed ensemble piece based on spoken extracts (read variously by the musicians themselves) from Gertrude Stein’s Wartime Diaries, contained within a living room stage-set of assorted lamps and tables, and brightly illuminated by Goebbels’ eccentric score. The displacement of the musicians – early music contingent to the fore, the more raucous wind, brass and percussion behind them – emphasised the music’s stylistic elasticity.

It’s a musical solution Stein’s arbitrary reflections welcome, her thoughts ranging from the most mundane aspects of wartime (the replacement of sugar with honey) to its frightening realism and futility, either in the here-and-now or in the context of history repeating itself. 

In responding to the latter, Goebbels incorporates actual music from the troublesome 17th century by Matthew Locke, which is where the most striking juxtapositions in this performance occurred. Such magical, silken moments from the Dunedin Consort were like historical parentheses, misty cameos imbued with a ghostly intensity.

These were especially effective within the overall context of Goebbels’ wider musical adventure, which shifted restively in character. The idiomatic mutability of this performance was its defining strength, very much a high-end cabaret concoction of funky modernism, smokey jazz, even spacey electronics. Conductor Ellie Slorach’s sizzlingly taut direction ensured that every minute counted. 

And for all that Stein’s words often seemed to matter less at times than their musical response, the overall impact was quite compelling and strangely moving. 

Ken Walton

Dunedin Consort / Maxwell Quartet

Crichton Collegiate Church, by Pathhead/Dirleton Kirk

The multifaceted 2023 edition of the Lammermuir Festival – very possibly the most artistically successful in its history, making Creative Scotland’s absence as a supporter all the more absurd – revealed yet another face on its final Sunday. In two of its most architecturally beautiful and acoustically admired venues we heard very different sung music, composed centuries apart, that fitted their original purpose as places of worship.

Roddy Willliams closed his short but highly effective recital at Dirleton Kirk in the afternoon with the Five Mystical Songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams, setting lyrics by metaphysical poet George Herbert, in the composer’s own arrangement for piano (Christopher Glynn) and single strings (the Maxwell Quartet).

Herbert’s guidance to living the Christian life is still part of the liturgy of the church, and the unmistakable voice of the popular baritone sounded wonderful in the closing AntiphonLet all the world in every corner sing, My God and King!

Less familiar were the settings of English Folk Songs by Vaughan Williams in the singer’s own arrangements for string quartet, which were as crisp as his own immaculate diction. Originally a lockdown project with soprano Mary Bevan and tenor Nicky Spence, Williams took on all the characters in these tales himself with changes of tone and timbre. In a varied selection from the composer’s vast archaeological project, Captain Grant was a geographically appropriate tale of an Edinburgh jail-break, while others dealt with lovers bereft, spurned and slightly soiled.

Preceding the songs and hymns, in the first half the Maxwells and Glynn combined forces for Elgar’s Piano Quintet, perhaps not obvious territory for this quartet but to which they brought their own folk-tinged style, to the music’s great profit. The work is full of changes of mood and tone, the haunted opening giving way to a dance tune that sounds almost Mediterranean, and a spooky carnival ride alternating with a stride across the South Downs in the finale. With a blended sound in the strings that only long acquaintance can bring, and assertive contributions from the pianist, this performance told its tale in what seemed a very swift 40 minutes.

Earlier in the day, at the well-off-the-beaten-track Crichton Collegiate Church (actually in Midlothian), the sequence of secular and sacred was reversed in soprano Nardus Williams’s recital with a Dunedin Consort quintet, led by John Butt from chamber organ and harpsichord.

Following on neatly from the Dunedin’s Out of Her Mouth production in June, featuring three of French composer Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre’s Biblical cantatas, this programme included her instrumental music alongside songs and solo cantatas by her female contemporaries and predecessors in Italy.

The convent composers featured in the first half may have had the Saviour and religious life as their subject, but they were clearly not cloistered from worldly desires and Williams brought real passion to her delivery, whether seated or standing. Singing from memory, she brought an expressiveness to these appeals for the bliss of Heaven or an encounter with the Christ-child that contrasted with the wry, more cynical tone of Barbara Strozzi in La vendetta, the song that gave the recital its title.

The lesson-telling of that and Costuma de grandi, the brilliant word-setting of Havete torto and the 12 minute mono-drama Hor che Apollo made the sequence after the interval a superb introduction to Strozzi, but the genius of the programme was the way it presented her work in context, with the Dunedin instrumentalists on top form.

The soprano – now happily a Dunedin stalwart – was the star however, in what was a beautifully nuanced, delightfully ornamented and utterly compelling performance.

Keith Bruce

Portrait of Nardus Williams by Bertie Watson

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

Dunedin: Out Of Her Mouth

Platform Glasgow

Few would argue that the Dunedin Consort, an ensemble that not long ago faced financial oblivion and likely extinction, is now considered one of Scotland’s most creative and imaginative musical groups. Among its many achievements, it has found ingenious ways to contemporise the historical performance ethos in such a way as to preserve the early music movement’s fundamental integrity, often through daring collaborations with contemporary composers or similarly-minded collaborators.

Take this season finale, an opera-styled presentation called Out Of Her Mouth, which manufactures a continuous dramatic entity out of three early 18th century Cantates Bibliques by the Versailles-based composer Elizabeth Jaquet de la Guerre. Each centres on a separate biblical heroine – Susanne, Rachel and Judith – whose stories speak of sexual oppression and their inner strength in managing or conquering it.

To enable this, Dunedin has joined forces with Mahogany Opera and We Are Hera. Hera’s joint artistic director Toria Banks – her company focuses on presenting inclusive opera for women and gender minority artists – has translated and adapted the original texts to formulate a bullish, streamlined English libretto. Cardiff-based stage director Mathilde Lopez and designer Will Monks create a restless, visual menagerie unified by the constant onstage presence of all three singers. Dunedin’s four-piece period band is also a permanent fixture on a crowded stage.

The onus is on the singers to define their respective characters: Anna Dennis as a defiant Susanne; Alys Mererid Roberts as the duped but compliant Rachel; Carolyn Sampson taking the juiciest of roles as the bloodthirsty Judith. They do so with ballsy intent, Sampson ultimately stealing the show with consummate magnetism and the intoxicating power to endear and shock at the flick of a switch.

It helps that this final cantata is the strongest musically, its opening aria gilded with Purcellian polish and exuberance, its momentum sustained by both de la Guerre’s enlivened invention and Sampson’s engaging vocal and theatrical nuances. Where she contemplates her murderous act  – the beheading of the sleeping sex-pest Holofernes – the sentiment is vile, the music strangely enchanting, the dramatic irony hideously apparent.

If the boyishly-attired Dennis and Wellingtons-clad Roberts have less persistently inspired music to contend with, they take the lead from the animated ensemble, using force of personality to overcome the more prosaic conventionalism they are dealt. 

Where this often accident-prone production did struggle was in meeting the challenge of an unsuitable venue. Glasgow’s Platform, formerly The Arches, is essentially a cavernous brick-lined crypt beneath the railway lines serving Glasgow Central Station. Time and again, Out Of Her Mouth played counter to the enveloping roar of overhead trains. 

That was insurmountable, but there were other aspects of this show that suffered from issues either implicit within director Mathilde Lopez’s overheated production style or determined by a low-slung stage area that facilitated technical mishaps. 

Coordination between the sung/spoken word and projected text frequently went askew, even obliterated at times by the singers’ shadows or the towering theorbo. For such a compact space, Lopez chose unadvisedly to forfeit clarity for overcomplexity. Symbolic props ranged from a series of kitchen paper towels – unrolled to criss-cross the stage and at one point wrap around the cellist’s music – to water melons variously disembowelled or beaten to pulp, whose purpose was clearest when representing Holofernes’ head, mercilessly minced by Judith with a baseball bat. There was too much going on, with confusing consequences. 

Other venues in this tour may provide the production with the space it needs. After Glasgow, it heads for Edinburgh, York Early Music Festival and Spitalfields Festival in London.

Ken Walton 

Photo: Carolyn Sampson

Three Bible Her-Stories

Toria Banks, co-creator of concerts that rediscover a celebrated French composer, explains the Dunedin Consort’s latest programme to KEITH BRUCE

Incremental though change may often seem, the development in the breadth of repertoire concert-goers can now expect to hear is interestingly illustrated by the work recently undertaken by Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort.

In this year’s Lammermuir Festival it is joined by soprano Nardus Williams for a concert of early music by women composers, two years after it brought to EIF the radical contemporary revision of Purcell by Errollyn Wallen, Dido’s Ghost. This from an ensemble whose reputation was founded on precision period readings of Handel and Bach.

The Dunedin is this week presenting a programme – in Findhorn, Glasgow and Edinburgh – that both excavates neglected repertoire by a woman composer from the early 18th century and premieres it in a brand new version.

Out of her Mouth is the umbrella title that has been given to three (of the 12) Biblical cantatas, mostly concerned with women in the scriptures, written by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who was a lauded composer in the court of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, but whose music is very rarely performed in the 21stcentury.

The project was the brainchild of writer and director Toria Banks, whose company Hera has worked with the Dunedin and Mahogany Opera, who co-produced Dido’s Ghost, to bring it to fruition.

“We’ve been going for five years,” Banks explains, “and we programme operas by women, both current and historical and neglected. We have commissioned new work and explored repertory that is not being performed enough. Mahogany supported the development of an earlier project of ours and then came in to co-produce this after working with Dunedin on Dido’s Ghost.”

She describes the Cantates Biblique as “storytelling pieces of theatre”, their message unlimited by historical context. The chamber group onstage – harpsichord, cello and theorbo continuo with a solo violin – may be playing early 18th century music, but the staging is up-to-date.

“The set and costumes are neither lavish nor period. They are Bible stories of Judith, Rachel and Susanne, but they are very relevant, so we are telling them in an abstracted time and space, rather than in pre-Christian Israel or 18th century France when they were written.

“The music is fantastic, but what attracted me to these specific pieces by Jacquet de la Guerre rather than others was the relevance of the stories.”

The texts were written by the composer’s celebrated contemporary Antoine Houdar de la Motte, whose theatrical successes include the French play of the Portuguese story of Ines de Castro, long before Jo Clifford’s Traverse Theatre version inspired James MacMillan’s debut opera.

“I’ve written the new English version of the text,” says Banks, clearly relishing the challenge. “The libretti are very nimble for the period. In the text – and in the music – there are subtle shifts of perspective, from an ironic, distanced and slightly cynical approach to the subject matter to really hearty-rending sincerity.

“And although I wanted to bring out the female perspective of the characters more, but for a man writing in early 18th century France, there’s a real sense of interesting, well-rounded women in them.

“The technical challenge was to express all this in contemporary-sounding English, but I’ve left in some archaic touches where it feels like the character is being self-mythologising. On the one hand it is creative writing and on the other it is solving a complex puzzle.”

The question remains as to why this careful archaeology was necessary for a composer who was a favourite at court and revered beyond her death.

“In general French Baroque music is under-performed in this country,” Banks points out, “but I do think she has been more forgotten because she’s a woman. She was celebrated in her lifetime and she keeps appearing in lists of France’s ‘great composers’ through the 18th century. It’s only really post-Revolution that she disappears.

“In her lifetime she was right in the thick of it and never marginalised. She was in at the start of the fashion for French cantatas as well as at the start of the sonata as a fashionable form for instrumental music. Sometimes people try to explain her disappearance because her only opera was not a success, but that was in 1694 when almost all operas were failing.

“There is a big difference between her music then and in 1707 when she wrote the Cantates Biblique. She was a lauded young talent, but by the time she wrote these she was in her 40s and they are her mature work, with details that come from a place of confidence.”

Two female singers of comparable experience, Carolyn Sampson and Anna Dennis will sing two of the three, Judith and Susanne, while Rachel is in the hands of the younger Alys Roberts, found through an open call designed to give an opportunity to a less experienced but exciting talent as part of the project.

The composer is known to have sung the cantatas herself, and her sister was also a singer, and Banks describes the work as a gift to performers. She is understandably keen to continue the work of reintroducing Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre to modern audiences and has three more of the Biblical cantatas in mind.

“The one I’d like to do that is not expressly about a woman is Adam, which tells the story of The Fall, but does so without mentioning Eve at all. It is sung by a woman, and pins the blame for mankind’s misfortune entirely on Adam.”

Dunedin Consort’s Out of her Mouth is at Universal Hall, Findhorn on Friday, Platform, Midland Street, Glasgow on Saturday and Edinburgh’s Assembly Roxy on Sunday. Performances start at 8pm.

Pictured: Soprano Alys Mererid Roberts

Dunard Centre chief

Impact Scotland, the body behind the building of the new Dunard Centre in Edinburgh, has announced the appointment of Jo Buckley as Chief Executive Officer.

Buckley leaves the Dunedin Consort, where she has worked for over five years and is currently Chief Executive, to take up the new role at the start of September, overseeing the development of the new facility that will be a home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Impact Scotland chair Ronnie Bowie said: “Jo is an exceptional leader with countless strings to her bow: visionary company manager, in-demand music writer and scholar, and tireless champion of emerging musical talent, not to mention an experienced contributor to Scottish arts policy and assessment.

“Delivering Edinburgh’s first 21st century venue will require both experience and fresh thinking, and in Jo we’ve found an overwhelming supply of both.”

Jo Buckley said: “The Dunard Centre is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build a musical hub for a city that already hums with artistic possibility and talent, and which is ready to demonstrate to the world what it can do, all day, every day. 

“Like many colleagues and peers, I’ve watched the plans for the Centre develop over these past few years, and grown increasingly excited about the possibilities this one-off, intimate space will create: not just for classical musicians, but for artists of all styles, traditions and career stages.”      

She added: “It has been an extraordinary privilege to work with John Butt and the wonderful musicians and colleagues that make up the Dunedin Consort, and I’m determined to make the most of every last moment with the team.

“It’ll be a wrench to leave such fantastic colleagues, but I’m consoled by knowing our paths will cross again, not least in the auditorium of this wonderful new home for music!”

Dunedin: Matthew Passion

New Auditorium, RSNO Centre

I’ve been spoilt when it comes to Good Friday performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion by the Dunedin Consort. It may have been nine years ago, but the memorable setting was on tour in Weimar’s historic Herderkirche, against a backdrop of Lucas Cranach’s vivid altarpiece and the very font used to baptise the composer’s son, CPE Bach, with a German congregation joining in the chorales that, in this sublime retelling of the Easter story according to Matthew, represent “the voice of the people”. Hard to forget.

The setting for this year’s Good Friday performance was very different, the secular modernity and bright functionalism of the RSNO’s home auditorium insisting largely on one key focus for the delivery of the spiritual message, the music itself. If part of me ached for the holistic “living history” experience of 2014, director John Butt and his nuclear cast of singers and period instrument players provided little short of a wholesome presentation to a near-capacity Glasgow audience.

Followers of Dunedin will be familiar with its ways: one singer to a part (double SATB chorus in this case) and proportionately minimalist twin band. The inevitable intimacy of such an approach – the soloists drawn from the vocal ensemble – brings with it a thrilling intensity and engagement that made this 3-hour-plus event fly past in a breeze. 

If anything, a bit of acclimatisation in the opening chorus, the first of two featuring members of the RSNO Youth Chorus as the soaring line of Ripieno Sopranos, left some aspects of balance – the otherwise efficient youth choir slightly under projected – in flux, but once tenor Andrew Tortise’s captivating Evangelist took firm hold of the narrative, sure-footed confidence wiped away any initial uncertainty. Indeed, Tortise’s performance – judiciously emotive in the best story-telling tradition – was the purposeful linchpin around which a versatile cast played out its drama.

That team spirit established a lightning fluency in delivery, the host of protagonists (from Jesus to Judas to Pontius Pilate) each enacted with searing individualised charisma, yet as a chorus, the vocal team retreated into homogenised near-perfection. Any sense of imperfection – single voices that momentarily edged above the parapet – was strangely, often beautifully, impactful. Those brief rabble-rousing chorus interjections around the trial scene sent shivers up the spine.

Individually, Edward Grint captured the bass role of Jesus with noble poignancy. Fellow bass Christopher Webb breathed fire into his assortment of character cameos, alongside multi-hued performances by sopranos Nardus Williams and Miriam Allan, tenor Christopher Bowen and countertenor Rory McLeery. But the ultimate showstopper was surely alto Jess Dandy’s soul-stirring aria Erbarme dich, sung with melting warmth and impassioned amplitude in liquid partnership with lead violinist Huw Daniel’s exquisite obligato solo.

That’s not to take anything away from other virtuoso instrumental contributions, such as Jonathan Manson’s free-flowing viola da gamba counterpoint to the bass aria Mache dich, or the sultry duetting oboe d’amores that embellish the soprano aria, Ich will dir mein Herze schenken. 

In all of this John Butt’s leadership counted for everything, impeccable timing that heightened the dramatic juxtapositions, expressed moments of deep sensitivity and chilling theatre in equal measure, and which triumphed in expressing the wonderment and relevance of Bach’s creative symbolism.

Ken Walton

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 

RSNO & Dunedin Consort/Chan

Usher Hall, Edinburgh

The first noise of Friday night’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth by the RSNO and Elim Chan was not those famous four notes, but the stomp of the diminutive Principal Guest Conductor’s boot on the podium as she laid down the beat.

I imagine she may regret that, but it was an early indication of how she would serve the symphony: at pace, with a rigorous precise rhythm, and utterly magisterial control of the dynamics of the work.

The way the conductor presented the Beethoven, including a last-minute reduction in the size of the orchestra from the strength in the published programme, was the result of the musical discussion the concert was all about. It was the first in a new three-year partnership between the RSNO and Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort, so ticket-buyers heard two bands for the price of one.

At the heart of the programme was the work that had given birth to the collaboration, Echo-Fragmente by clarinettist Jorg Widmann, the orchestra’s “Musician in Focus” this season. Written for celebrations of Mozart’s 250th anniversary in Freiburg, the score calls for a modern orchestra tuned to current pitch of A=440 alongside a period band playing at baroque pitch, with the virtuoso clarinet soloist (Widmann himself here as well as at the 2006 premiere) using extended multiphonic and note-bending techniques to straddle both worlds.

If that sounds demanding, it is not the half of it, with all sorts of aural adventures in the work’s fragmentary structure – and much of it a great deal less tiring to listen to than that probably sounds.

Widmann’s own playing was extraordinary, but his writing is just as original. The work began with an unlikely trio of himself, Pippa Tunnell’s harp and Dunedin guitarist Sasha Savaloni on slide mandolin, and used all sorts of interesting combinations of instruments in its 20 minutes, those three joined by Lynda Cochrane’s Celeste and Djordje Gajic’s accordion in a central unit between the RSNO players and the Dunedin on either side of the stage.

Specific moments seared themselves into the consciousness, including the soloist’s combining with four RSNO clarinets, including bass and contrabass instruments, in a resonant chorale, and his virtuosic soloing (sounding like more than one player himself0, accompanied by the low strings of the period band.

The four natural horn players of the Dunedin were required to become a big band trombone section in tone at one point, which was in marked contrast to their earlier appearance in Haydn’s Symphony No 39 in G Minor. In the Consort’s performance which opened the programme, they stood with their instruments vertical, bells upwards, as contemporary images suggest was 18th century practice. Directed by first violin Matthew Truscott, the smaller group filled the Usher Hall with beautifully textured sound, lovely string phrasing in the Andante second movement, and skipping dance beats in the Trio before the stormy Finale, which surely prefigures Beethoven.

Likewise, Chan’s attention was on every detail of the Fifth, with the dynamics of her interpretation turning on a dime. That was obvious from the first movement but rarely does the Scherzo become quite as sotto voce as the RSNO did here, the tension palpable before the explosion into the Finale.

It is often noted that the work of historically informed performance groups like the Dunedin Consort has in turn informed the way modern symphony orchestras go about playing music of previous centuries. With this new collaboration, audiences can hear exactly what that means in one evening. There are other fascinating works in the pipeline for them to present together in an exercise in mutual appreciation that is a win-win for audiences as well.

Keith Bruce

Repeated this evening (Saturday, October 29) at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Rehearsal picture by Jessica Cowley

Dunedin Consort / Butt

Perth Concert Hall 

It is still sometimes suggested that Mozart intended his Requiem for himself, but if he had foreseen his own death, surely classical music’s definitive whizz kid would have been careful to finish it. 

What the Requiem has had to cement its place in the repertoire is Sussmayr’s contemporary completion, an advantage not enjoyed by the composer’s earlier Mass in C Minor. In 2017, however, Amsterdam University’s Clemens Kemme published new edition of the work which presented an authoritative solution to the problems of the score. The first recording of his revisions, in Berlin, has not been judged a complete success, so Dunedin Consort, with its track record of benchmark-setting discs of early choral music, and specifically a Grammy nomination for the Linn-released Requiem, has an important job to do for Mozart, a mere 240 years on from the work’s likely first and only performance in his lifetime. 

What Kemme has done, and what came across magnificently in this performance under conductor John Butt, is to look at the composers Mozart was drawing from for his own mass – Bach and Handel – as well as to the music he was writing himself around the same time. 

The two male soloists, Joshua Ellicott and Robert Davies, are really in supporting roles, with Davies stepping out from the chorus – a choir of six women and four men. The vocal ensemble presented themselves both by voice (two each of soprano 1 and 2, mezzo, tenor and bass) and as a double choir of one-voice-to-a-part, as the music required – music that not only owes a debt to the earlier composers but sometimes echoes specific works. If Mozart had a copy of Bach’s Mass in B Minor to hand, it would be no surprise at all. 

The significant arias, and more operatic music, were in the more than capable hands of Lucy Crowe and Anna Dennis, voices chosen with great care for the notes they had to sing and for the way they combined wonderfully together. Their duetting on Laudamus te was the first shiver-inducing moment of the performance, although the blend of the six women’s voices in the Gloria that preceded it had laid out that path with clarity. 

Davies had his moment, in partnership with three trombones, in Jesu Christe – Cum Sancto Spiritu, before the ensemble sequence – broken only by a demanding and demonstrative solo Et incarnatus est from Crowe – that ends the work. The Sanctus and Benedictus both end with choral Osannas that are part of Kemme’s crucial contribution, alongside the orchestration, based on what sketches Mozart left. 

In a clever piece of programming, Butt began the concert with Haydn’s Symphony No 80, from the same era and known to Mozart. It was an opportunity to tune the ears to the fabulous playing of the instrumentalists, an 18-piece Baroque band (yet to be augmented by brass, timpani and organ) producing a sound of wonderful clarity and spaciousness. The Adagio second movement was quite as lovely as the best of the singing that followed – and after the interval the Mozart singers sounded all the better for the quality of the playing behind them. 

Keith Bruce 

Portrait of Lucy Crowe by Victoria Cadisch

EIF: Les Siècles | Dunedin

Usher Hall & Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh

If you haven’t heard the revelatory recordings of Stravinsky’s trio of famous Ballet Russes scores issued some years ago by the exceptional Le Siécles orchestra, performed on the same type of early 20th century French instruments these groundbreaking Parisian creations were first heard on, they are readily available. If you missed the real thing – a simply sensational Festival performance on Tuesday of The Rite of Spring under the orchestra’s founder and conductor François-Xavier Roth –  you missed an absolute treat.

It was, without exaggeration, a knock-out. Where successive exponents have found virtue enough in The Rite’s unnerving, sidestepping rhythmic propulsion, the mystical primitivism of its Russian folksong derivations, or the cataclysmic violence of its harmonic friction, Roth not only brought these together in an electrifying display of utter completeness, but did so with intense, penetrating forensic insight. 

The unrefined pungency of the period instruments, and the matching expertise of the players, added a further blood-curdling distinctiveness to the eviscerating frenzy of the performance, strengthened by Roth’s insistence on pinpoint precision and clarity of line. Every parameter had unquestioning purpose, the earth-shattering extremes of dynamic, even the prolonged dramatic silences during which the entire Usher Hall seemed to draw a collective breath. The final sign-off, like a killer blow, sent this audience into instant delirium.

It was an inspired piece of programming to precede this particular Stravinsky with Lili Boulanger’s Faust et Hélène, written the same year as the infamous succès de scandale of The Rite of Spring. It was also a reminder that the early death of Lili (younger sister of the influential Nadia, also a composer) in 1918 robbed French 20th century music of a hugely promising voice. 

For Boulanger’s cantata, written at only 20 as a successful bid to become the first female winner of the much-coveted Prix de Rome, is a cauldron of rich and fertile musical ideas thrown around with seething impatience but ultimate theatrical assurance. It features three characters – Faust (the resplendent and impassioned tenor Julien Behr), Hélène (the softer, mellow-voiced Véronique Gens), and Mephistopheles (baritone Jean-Sébastien Bou) – and a musical language in the process of freeing itself from dominant influences, not least Wagner and Debussy. 

Roth acknowledged its impetuousness in a busy, fiery, directional performance. But inevitably this occasion will long be remembered for A Rite of Spring that completely blew us away.

The Dunedin Consort at the Queen’s Hall

I wonder what the BBC Radio 3 audience made of the opening of the Dunedin Consort’s Queen’s Hall concert on Tuesday? The loose-limbed Toccata in D minor by Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger may not have immediately registered with listeners only, but for those of us there, actually watching Elizabeth Kenny spin the arpeggiations from her theorbo, the overall experience was one of eloquence and restful appreciation.

Which sums up the overriding essence of this Dunedin Consort programme, devised by the starring tenor Nicholas Mulroy. It centred on that pivotal 17th century period in European music when the Renaissance gave way to the early Baroque, offering a sequence of representational songs punctuated by instrumental respite.

Even with relatively supercharged moments from Monteverdi – the invigorating ritornelli that elicited the sweet virtuoso duelling between voice and violins in Più Lieto Il Guardo – or in the exuberant instrumental Trio Sonata in C by Buxtehude, there was a stylish refinement that tempered the spirit of the delivery. It was late morning; no need to get too excited.

And it was all about good taste. Mulroy, who is now Dunedin’s associate director, explored shifting emotions with tempered insight. Where Monteverdi’s Salve Regina and Schütz’s O Misericordissime Jesu were filled with deep and thoughtful reverence, the former’s Et E Pur Dunque Vero was a radiant contrast to the gorgeous exoticism of his Nigra Sum. 

The group’s actual director, John Butt, kept a generous low profile on continuo, butting in, as it were, with a frisky solo harpsichord Capriccio by Frescobaldi. But the most dramatised music was left till last, Barbara Strozzi’s Lagrime Mie constituting a miniaturised cantata whose narrative course and deep sentiments found Mulroy in his fullest flow. It ended like a bookend to Kenny’s opening solo: soft, ruminative, sublime. Was I the only one tempted to tip-toe out?

Ken Walton

Photos: Ryan Buchanan

New paths for Dunedin

The foundation stones are still firmly in place, but following its celebration of 25 years in the business of quality music-making, Dunedin Consort announces a 2022/23 season that sees it introducing new faces and welcoming familiar ones in new roles, forging new partnerships, and taking up residence in a New Town forty-odd miles from the one in Scotland’s capital.

Those building blocks first, which begin with an Edinburgh Festival concert in the Queen’s Hall, directed by John Butt and featuring the voice of Associate Director Nicholas Mulroy. The tenor will be in charge of the choral tour next May, which is a programme of Marian music, early and modern, that visits Aberdeen, Perth, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Butt also directs the group’s December Messiah performances in Glasgow, Lanark and Edinburgh, and an Easter outing for Bach’s Matthew Passion in Edinburgh and Glasgow with Andrew Tortise the Evangelist and Neal Davies as Christus. Wigmore Hall concerts of music for Christmas and New Year are also under the baton of the Artistic Director.

Of the new directions, a three-year partnership with the RSNO has already been revealed. It begins in October with Elim Chan conducting side-by-side concerts in Edinburgh and Glasgow that bracket soloist Jorg Widmann’s concerto Echo-Fragment with Haydn and Beethoven.

There’s more Haydn in February when Peter Whelan directs concerts of three early symphonies and CPE Bach’s Cello Concerto in A, with Jonathan Manson as soloist. Performances in Perth, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Benjamin Bayl is guest director for an all-Handel programme in March with Nardus Williams the soprano soloist, and in June the solo female voice is featured again in what are thought to be the first ever UK performances of the cantatas of seventeenth century composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre.

With its continuing Bridging the Gap initiative providing a step on to the career ladder for young singers, Dunedin is now joining forces B’Rock Orchestra and Concerto Copenhagen to offer similar mentoring for instrumentalists in a new scheme entitled Intrada. The ensemble’s other outreach initiatives are joined by a new partnership at Cumbernauld’s Theatre’s new home, Lanternhouse, with family concerts, cinema screenings, open rehearsals and events for children all on the bill.

After the Edinburgh Festival, the season opens with Dunedin’s biggest venture of the year, performing Mozart’s C Minor Mass in a new completion by Clemens Kemme at Lammermuir Festival, in Perth Concert Hall and in Saffron Walden, as well as recording the work for a Linn label release. John Butt directs and Lucy Crowe, Anna Dennis, Benjamin Hulett and Robert Davies are the soloists.

Full details at dunedin-consort.org.uk

Portait of Nardus Williams by Bertie Watson

Dunedin Consort

Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

This original presentation of unaccompanied Renaissance madrigals, sung with passion and precision by a quintet led and directed by tenor Nicholas Mulroy, would not have come about but for the pandemic. Available free to view via the Dunedin Consort’s website for the month of June, it exists as a film, while this concert and the one in Glasgow replace the a cappella performances onscreen with live singing, now that is permissible once again.

What it does, however, would have been just as valid an exercise without the strictures that necessitated its imagination. We hear much of the liturgical side of early vocal music in this godless age, while the lustful secular work from 16th century Italy is more rarely performed. Somewhat blasphemously co-opting the structure of Advent’s Nine Lessons and Carols, A Lover’s Discourse takes its title from the 1977 book by French post-modernist Roland Barthes, recently filmed by Claire Denis as Un beau soleil interieur with Juliette Binoche.

The texts from the book are interwoven with the madrigals by Gesualdo, Monteverdi, Luca Marenzio, and the very early Cipriano de Rore, with great skill, so that imagery hops happily across 400 years or so. At the same time, there is also a remarkable similarity of tonal expression in both, the philosophical rigour of Barthes – for whom being in love seems a fairly joyless business – remarkably akin to the mannered style of the songs, for all their saucy metaphors.

Mulroy’s emphasis is on the ensemble sound, although he himself and bass Ben McKee are both on especially fine form. They are joined by Dunedin regulars soprano Rachel Ambrose Evans and alto Jessica Gillingwater, with the Consort’s former Head of Artistic Planning, tenor David Lee, completing the group – and it is Lee who is the true Renaissance man onstage.

He is now a partner in the Leith-based company Arms & Legs, whose film work for artists during lockdown has been much admired, and not only was the concept of A Lover’s Discourse his own, but his professional career straddles all its elements.

Eight actors are seen delivering the Barthes text, stylishly filmed at locations in Edinburgh – a few not far at all from the company’s premises. Martin Quinn, Matthew Zajac and Kim Allan have the most effective contributions, in a café, a kirkyard and by the River Almond in Cramond, but all make remarkably light work of Barthes’ weighty words, just as the singers do with the music. Completing the picture are snippets of electronic underscore, by composer Pippa Murphy, that dovetail the translated French fragments with the older music.

For fans of the Dunedin’s usual fare, there is no compromise here at all – in fact the (post-) modern text is often harder to grasp than the early music, for all that it is in English. Instead, necessity has proved the mother of invention of a clever cross-genre creation.

While the singers were filmed in Glasgow’s Engine Works for the online version, in this Edinburgh Fringe venue the Dunedin Consort found a perfect venue for the project, with excellent acoustics. It is repeated in Glasgow this evening, at what is now confusingly called Platform in Midland Street, which has nothing to do with the longer-established Platform in Easterhouse, but which most folk will remember as The Arches.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Nicholas Mulroy

Dunedin Discourse

Associate Director of the Dunedin Consort, tenor Nicholas Mulroy, tells Keith Bruce about the group’s upcoming concerts

The 25th anniversary season of Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort is showcasing the work of Nicholas Mulroy in his role as Associate Director, although his fine tenor voice has been a feature of the choir’s sound for most of those 25 years.

One of the foremost Evangelists of his generation, Mulroy also directed the Easter performances of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Edinburgh and London, and he has his two hats on again next week for the more experimental programme A Lover’s Discourse, before reviving his role as Acis in Handel’s Acis Galatea in June tour of the work under music director John Butt.

“The directing has developed naturally and I do tend to sing and direct,” says Mulroy. “For the Dunedins’ choral stuff I might stand at the front but then the group needs something different when it is a larger group of singers. But, like all things Dunedin, there is an atmosphere of collaboration and openness, because John Butt has never been a directorial director and I hope I am not either.”

That role has also found a balance with the tenor’s other work.

“My guesting with orchestras also tends to be the early stuff, with a bit of Britten thrown in, and that seems to be picking up again, post-pandemic. Easter is always one of my busiest times, and this one was as busy as one would expect, with that combination of whole teams like Dunedin and things like working in Antwerp with Richard Egarr, which was my first time with them and with him. I like that sense of having some long collaborations and new things that keep the ideas nice and fresh.”

That is a description that might particularly apply to A Lover’s Discourse, which was originally planned for February and will be performed at Edinburgh’s Assembly Roxy on Tuesday May 31 and Platform in Glasgow on Wednesday June 1, with an online version available for the whole month.

As those unfamiliar venues suggest, the project is a new direction for the Dunedin, and much of the initiative for it came from the group’s former Head of Artistic Planning, David Lee, also a tenor who will be singing in the performances, and a partner in filmmakers Arms & Legs, who are responsible for the video aspect, shot across Edinburgh. Both on film and live, seven Scottish-based actors speak text from French writer Roland Barthes.

Mulroy explains: “A Lover’s Discourse arose from a desire to make late Renaissance madrigals speak more directly to a modern audience.

“Their language can seem a bit remote and a bit mannered, but the emotions they deal with are the nuts and bolts of human existence – love and lust and desire and loss and anger, all these things that we recognise. The idea of bringing in the Roland Barthes was to add a different medium of delivering that language of love; his texts make it feel current and located in a particular place.

The Barthes is about a situation where things are intense and new and unfamiliar – that heightened sense of reality when we are ‘out of our comfort zone’. Both the madrigals and the Barthes text deal with that in a specific way, which I hope marry together.”

Mulroy is full of praise for the way the actors inhabit the words they were given to speak – something he says was very instructive to the singers for their part in the performances – and for composer Pippa Murphy’s electronic soundtrack to the film, tailored to fit harmonically with the older material.

“David and I chose the music based on the Barthes text, different aspects of being in love matched with particular madrigals. There was a real wealth of choice and I think the music is all first rate, from the top drawer of that repertoire.

“Sung a cappella, there should be a real direct line of communication with the audience. It is music that should grab you by the lapels, in the nicest possible way. It is not the sort of programme that would sit well in a church – it is very secular, very sensuous, and wouldn’t feel right in Canongate Kirk!”

Nor would that be a natural home of Handel’s early opera of jealous love, Acis & Galatea, which the Dunedin Consort will perform in Perth Concert Hall and Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on June 22 and 23. Galatea will be sung by Rachel Redmond and Christopher Purves, Anthony Gregory and Nicholas Scott complete a top-notch cast who go on to perform the work at Wigmore Hall and as part of Stour Music Festival and Nevill Holt Opera’s summer season.

The Dunedin version of the work is one of the award-winning albums the group has made on the Linn label.

“That was recorded in 2008, longer ago than we care to think about!” says Mulroy. “It has become a real staple for me, and more importantly for the group. It is one of those programmes that we have been able to tour because it only has five singers and a small band, and it is always nice to come back to.

“It’s ‘young man’ Handel and it feels quite slight in some ways, but it is full of energy and vitality and incredible tenderness toward the end, when everything goes pear-shaped for the characters, as these things tend to.

“It is a lovely work and a lovely audience experience, and John has a real way with it.”

Nicolas Mulroy directs and sings A Lover’s Discourse with Ben McKee, David Lee, Jessica Gillingwater, and Rachel Ambrose Evans at Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh on Tuesday and Platform, Glasgow on Wednesday. Available to watch free online for 30 days from May 31. dunedin-consort.org.uk

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

Dunedin Consort / Butt

Perth Concert Hall

Given its headline-grabbing Dunkirk spirit at the start of the health emergency, it might be fitting, although no less regrettable, if the Dunedin Consort’s annual performances of Handel’s Messiah prove to be the last live concerts the sector feels able to undertake in Scotland for a while once again.

As it happened, the chamber group’s artistic director John Butt was simultaneously audible on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday evening, conducting the same work with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Chorus, in a performance recorded a week previously. It seems unlikely that he tore through Part 1 of the oratorio with those forces quite as briskly as Perth heard it.

In his usual style, standing at the harpsichord, the conductor brought the first section to the interval in under an hour, leaving time to perform some of the music that is often cut from Parts 2 and 3. (I should add that this equation is my own, and may not be how the University of Glasgow’s Gardiner Professor of Music sees it.)

With the soloists stepping out from a choir of 12 and the same number of players joining Butt on the platform – with trumpets and timpani added later – the compact forces are nimble but never feeble. It is easy to identify individual voices in the choruses but at the same time the blending is mostly spot on. There were a couple of lumpy moments in Part 2, and a technical problem with Nicholas Wearne’s chamber organ also necessitated a brief hiatus, but that sequence of the work also provided one of this performance’s revelations.

Although the words of the New Testament version are rarely used, Charles Jennens’ libretto and Handel’s music demonstrate the switch of allegiance in the crowd in Jerusalem in the Easter story in the singing of the choruses – and that piece of structural cleverness was superbly clear here and part of a fine choral acting performance that was at the heart of the concert.

Of the four soloists, tenor Nicholas Mulroy and soprano Mhairi Lawson led the way in their storytelling style, the latter drawing a fine distinction between that job in Part 1 and the personal introspective arias later on. They also added the most individual ornamentation when appropriate, while bass Robert Davies played things with more of a straight bat, stentorian of tone. Alto Owen Willetts also has a powerful voice, fading a little at the bottom of his range, and his diction was perhaps not as sharp as that of the others, although the clarity overall was exceptional.

As their first performance of the work in a while, this Dunedin Messiah was perhaps not entirely “run-in” when measured against the group’s own high standards, but if it turns out to the last live music anyone in the hall hears for a while, they will surely consider themselves blessed.

Keith Bruce

Pictured: Mhairi Lawson by Lloyd Smith

RPS Awards

There has been much understandable mutual congratulating on social media in Scotland after the announcement of the shortlists for the 2021 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards. The pioneering spirit of music-making in Scotland is well represented, and there are Scots in the running in many categories.

Conductor Paul MacAlindin, founder of the Govan-based Glasgow Barons orchestra, is up against veteran director of Ex Cathedra Jeffrey Skidmore and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland alumnus now at BBC National Orchestra of Wales Ryan Bancroft in his category.

Tenor Nicky Spence is nominated in the Singer category, where his rivals are mezzo Jennifer Johnston and Scottish Opera’s Alice Ford in Falstaff, Elizabeth Llewellyn.

Violinist Nicola Benedetti is nominated for the Instrumentalist award, and the concerto written for her by Mark Simpson is up for Large Scale Composition.

The Ensemble award boasts two nominees in the Dunedin Consort and the Nevis Ensemble and the Inspiration award includes nominations for Orkney Camerata and Orkney Winter Choir, and Aberdeen Saxophone Orchestra for its online partnership with the Phoenix Saxophone Orchestra of Market Harborough in Leicestershire.

The winners will be announced at a ceremony in London’s Wigmore Hall on November 1.


Pictured: Orkney Winter Choir and Orkney Camerata rehearsing in St Magnus Cathedral

Red Note and Dunedin plans

Scotland’s Dunedin Consort and Red Note Ensemble have both unveiled new seasons of work, starting with their appearances at the Lammermuir Festival this week.

Wednesday September 15 sees Red Note play the music of James Dillon and Tansy Davies at Dunbar Parish Church before the Dunedin Consort performs Monteverdi madrigals at St Mary’s in Haddington.

The RPS award-winning commission Tanz/Haus: triptych 2017, in the Dunbar concert, prefaces a new Dillon work EMBLEMATA: Carnival, which Red Note will play at Perth Concert Hall on September 24, launching a new residency at the venue. This new commission from the Scottish composer will be recorded for Delphian Records and broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November. That performance will also include a new work from Scotland’s Aileen Sweeney, The Land Under the Wave, and Five Phase Sphere by Luke Styles.

The Styles piece premieres as part of the programme Red Note takes to Aberdeen’s soundfestival in October, where it is joined by the first performance of Ailie Robertson’s Unfurl and Edwin Hillier’s 37  Otago Street.

On November 4 in Perth, the Ensemble premieres a commission to mark COP26, with further performances in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Sub Mari is a multimedia work by Martina Corsini – Red Note’s Weston-Jerwood Creative Fellow – and Chilean bassist, composer and conductor Manuel Figueroa-Bolvarán and will feature contributions from Chilean youth choir Allegro and young singers from Scotland.

Corsini is also involved in Red Note’s outreach work in Methil in Fife and Easterhouse in Glasgow, alongside composers Oliver Searle and Brian Irvine, whose new commission A Child’s Guide to Anarchy will be played at the end of that month.

Dunedin Consort also has a COP26 commission, Yince a Paradise by Drew Hammond and Isobel McArthur, as part of its autumn activity. The work gives its title to an a cappella choral tour visiting Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews in October under the guest direction of Grete Pedersen.

The 21-22 season marks the 25th birthday of the Dunedin and artistic director John Butt will be conducting performances of Messiah in December, and the music of Handel and Scarlatti in a February programme entitled The Trials of Love, with soloists Anna Dennis and Matthew Brook. Birthday concerts in March of next year, entitled Welcome to All the Pleasures, will be followed in June by a UK tour of Handel’s Acis and Galatea.

Associate Director Nicholas Mulroy, who is conducting this week’s Lammermuir concert, will direct Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and sing the Evangelist, in April. He is also in charge of concerts that include a new score by Pippa Murphy and pair the writings of post-modernist Roland Barthes with madrigals by Gesualdo and Monteverdi under the banner A Lover’s Discourse.

The Dunedin Consort’s latest recording, of three Bach cantatas, is released on the Linn label early in October.

Pictured: Ailie Robertson

Dunedin Consort / Bach

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.
Ken Walton

Available to view for 30 days at www.dunedin-consort.org.uk

Dunedin Consort: Dido’s Ghost

Barbican, London

This Mahogany Opera collaboration at the Barbican, with San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque and Chorale now also onboard as co-commissioners, is a radical step for Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort. Yes, it is built around a performance of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which is in the group’s familiar repertoire range, but composer Errollyn Wallen and librettist Wesley Stace have gone far beyond the original masque in creating a three-act contemporary opera where the music of Purcell, and the story he told, is just one element.

This is a concert performance, conducted by John Butt and directed by Frederic Wake-Walker, with elements of staging and the orchestra and chorus sharing the platform, and it works well in that form, even if the filming of it for the live stream is not of the high standard we have seen elsewhere during the pandemic. However, it is not difficult to imagine a fully-realised production, and it is desirable beyond argument that Dido’s Ghost becomes a repertoire work.

Wallen’s music ranges far and wide in its material. In what is the score’s best trick, and eventually the coup de theatre of the work, the famous Lament of the Queen of Carthage seems about to appear at many points before we eventually hear it. But the composer is not merely responding to the baroque era – there is jazz and blues in the mix as well, and the instrumentation ranges from Elizabeth Kenny’s lute and theorbo to Fender bass guitar, with a little Caribbean hand-pan tuned drumming in there as well.

Stace’s words are richly poetic, from the early image of a society “confused as bees without a queen”. Those words are sung by Isabelle Peters, who stepped up to the title role from covering it, following the withdrawal of South African soprano Golda Schultz. She is quite superb, in what is surely a career-establishing performance – but she is far from alone in filing a personal best.

Dunedin stalwart Matthew Brook has never been better than he is here, as Aeneas, his acting performance matching the nuance of hers, and his voice finding new areas of upper register gentleness. Nardus Williams as the supportive Belinda is also a powerful presence, and Scots mezzo Allison Cook is fearsome as Lavinia, with a voice to match her disturbingly Aleister Crowley-esque stage business.

The narrative, musically and theatrically, is compelling, and the underlying subject matter – guilt and its status as a feeling without a statute of limitations – could hardly be more appropriate for our times. Towards the end of the work, there is some gorgeous filmic writing for the strings before a virtuosic solo from Peters and then the sucker-punch appearance of that Purcell aria, succeeded by a lovely chorus and instrumental coda.

Structurally – and perhaps not intended at all – there are similarities between this profound new work, now on the road to Buxton and then Edinburgh, and Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, which will also have a star-studded concert performance at August’s Festival. Despite all that has happened this past year, the EIF’s 2021 opera programme is looking very exciting indeed.

Keith Bruce

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