Tag Archives: Dunedin Consort

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.

royalphilharmonicsociety.org.uk/awards/rps-awards

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

Reviving Dido for Dunedin Consort

Errollyn Wallen talks to KEITH BRUCE about writing a sequel to Purcell from her new home on Scotland’s North coast

There is an irresistible irony in the genesis of composer Errollyn Wallen’s new Purcell-resurrecting chamber opera, Dido’s Ghost, tracing back to a Scottish tour of her song-cycle Are You Worried About the Rising Cost of Funerals?.

It was the suggestion of former co-director of Dunedin Consort soprano Susan Hamilton, who performed that work with McFall’s Chamber in 2015, that a companion piece for Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas might be a useful addition to the repertoire.

“It stayed on the wish-list,” explains the composer, “and in December 2019 Jo Buckley, the current chief executive of the Dunedin Consort, included it on a list of proposals to the Barbican.”

The London venue liked the idea and other partners came onboard with a project that Wallen is delighted has survived the vicissitudes of the pandemic.

“It has been safeguarded through all this, when other things have been cut, but it didn’t give us a huge amount of time to get the libretto and the score ready with little chance of any face-to-face workshops.

“It has been written in lockdown, but on the plus side Wesley Stace and I have had all this thinking time for it, and began with Wesley producing the libretto. We had one little workshop last October which was just enough for me to hear some of the soundworld.”

That McFall’s Chamber tour – with a string quartet joining the singer – had a lasting impact on Wallen in other ways, in particular her residence at Strathy Point lighthouse, bang in the middle of Scotland’s North coast, which is where I have called her.

“I was forging connections before I moved here. I’d been working with [composer and multi-instrumentalist] Mike Vass and I was invited to mentor on the Distil course by Simon Thoumire, with Scottish traditional musicians, as well as working with Mr McFalls Chamber, which toured around Scotland. It was in a break during that that I nipped over to Tiree to see a little house and then ran up here, and found this.

“I’ve been coming here every month, splitting my time between here and London, since 2016 when I got it, but since the pandemic I’ve  pretty much been here all the time, apart from a couple of trips to London. It has become my primary residence and it has everything I need really. It is an incredible location and it is so conducive to work. I am under pressure all the time to produce a lot of music, and here is just the right place.

“I had criteria when I was looking for a place. It had to be right on top of the sea and a place that wasn’t near people. I wanted it to be remote, and where no one could hear me playing. I wasn’t planning on Scotland, or a lighthouse, but it seems we were meant for each other.

“Through personal connections I’ve widened my knowledge of the richness and variety of music-making in Scotland. I’ve worked with the RSNO, the BBC SSO, and the RCS invited me to be a visiting professor of composition. We’ve only managed to have one concert, when I met David Watkins and Oliver Searle, and that was a magical few days. The Scottish music scene seems very friendly and warm. London is a very big city, so although I grew up there, studied there and began my career there, it can be quite daunting.”

Wallen moved to the UK with her family from Belize when she was two years old, and remembers her sister announcing when she was around 4 or 5 that she felt Scottish and was going to say she was from Scotland.

“And I’ve recently learned that during the Second World War loggers from Belize came over and helped with tree-cutting as part of the war effort – and they were based in Ullapool.”

The solitude the composer enjoys at Strathy has been put to particularly productive use since the start of 2021.

“I have written eight or nine works since January. I’m never not writing something, but I have sort of lost track at the moment! I have written an opera for Graeae theatre company that we think will go on next Spring, and immediately I’ve finished with Dido’s Ghost I start an opera for Chicago Opera Theatre. It is set in London in the 18th century, a period drama with a black cast, set in the years just after the American revolution.

“Because opportunities have presented themselves, I’ve had to work fast. There seem to have been so many opportunities recently – but I will have to slow down soon and have a holiday!”

“I also wrote music for [choreographer] Cathy Marston at Joffrey Ballet in Chicago for a short film. It uses violin and handpan, and that instrument will also be used in Dido’s Ghost. The handpan is a beaten metal instrument and I don’t think it has ever been used in classical music, but it has this lovely mellow sound with overtones. And there was a solo viola piece in February, called Lavinia, commissioned by Riot Ensemble, and Lavinia is one of the characters in Dido’s Ghost. So a lot of things have been preparation for writing this.

“I really love composing operas because you get swept away by the world you enter. Everything you do is in the service of drama and atmosphere. Not every composer has an instinct for the stage and I didn’t know I did, but the more I compose these things, the more magical it seems. You are dealing with vision and sound together as you write.”

“I’ve been obsessed by Dido’s story since studying Virgil as a schoolkid aged 13. I wasn’t that good at Latin, but these myths emerged from my bumbling translation and it stayed with me.

“After our initial conversation, Wesley went off and found a story in Ovid’s writing that is the perfect sequel, so we’ve based it on that. Wesley and I want to amplify the characters that are already there in the Purcell, and our opera starts after Aeneus has left Carthage. It is funny how these things evolve: you have an idea and then gradually the work starts to dictate what it should be. You’ll get the sense of a conversation across the centuries.”

That, Wallen intends, will be as true of the score as it is of the drama. And she was not at all daunted by following Purcell’s Dido’s Lament, a work which has influenced composers working in every field of music in the centuries since.

“I don’t think of it in terms of being bold. The more I worked on it, it became this wonderful conversation with music of the past. The Lament is possibly the best aria ever written, and it has been sung by singers of all genres because it is so expressive. I have referred to the Lament in other works of mine, and I feel very comfortable exploring it. 

“Composing this opera has taken me to a world where tonality isn’t the same as we know it now, but there are some things that remain in music that are part of the fabric of our emotional understanding, and the descending bass is one of those.

“The way it has worked out is that the two operas intertwine and started to blend into each other. You’ll hear echoes of Purcell’s music from the beginning. Sometimes they are hidden and sometimes more explicit, but I’d like to think that everything has grown out of dramatic necessity.”

Dido’s Ghost is at London’s Barbican on June 6, and Buxton Opera House on July 11, 14 & 17.

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