sun 25/07/2021

Dunedin Consort, Butt, Wigmore Hall review – bijou Bach | reviews, news & interviews

Dunedin Consort, Butt, Wigmore Hall review – bijou Bach

Dunedin Consort, Butt, Wigmore Hall review – bijou Bach

Warm and lyrical Baroque textures, but some sagging at slower tempos

John Butt: Drawing expansive textures from a small ensembleJo Buckley

The Edinburgh-based Dunedin Consort are regular visitors to the Wigmore Hall, and their concert on Saturday night was greeting by a full house.

In these Covid times, that meant an audience of just 200, but from the applause, they were clearly enthusiastic for John Butt’s programme, centred around two Bach favourites, the D minor Two-Violin Concerto and the cantata Ich habe genug. The ensemble is a period instrument orchestra who play one to a part. That is a controversial choice in Bach, as there is little evidence that he used such small groups himself. However, it suits the generous acoustic of the Wigmore Hall. Butt draws a warm round sound from his small group of strings, so any concerns about meagre tone are quickly dispelled.

Bass Matthew Brook (pictured below) opened the concert with a short cantata by Buxtehude, Mein Herz ist bereit, BuxWV 73. This is one of Buxtehude’s more popular solo cantatas, but it is a small-scale work, a simple strophic setting of Psalm 57. Brook has an expansive and expressive performing style, but he also observes the devout, not to say pious, early Baroque style. Buxtehude writes punishingly low lines for the soloist, and Brook sometimes struggled to maintain the clarity of the long melisma runs in this low register. But anybody would, raising the question of who exactly the composer wrote this music for in the first place.

Matthew BrookTo follow, an oboe d’amore concerto by Bach. The work, BWV 1055, has come down to us as a harpsichord concerto, but all the evidence suggests that Bach originally wrote it for oboe d’amore, and so this performance was a reconstruction. Soloist Alexandra Bellamy faced stiff challenges in presenting such intricate and freely flowing music on an instrument with a narrow, nasal tone, and little keywork to assist with articulation. Here and elsewhere in the programme, John Butt resisted the temptation to push the tempos, but even so, Bellamy seemed constrained by the unbending tempos in the outer movements. Some of the passagework seemed to be at the limit of the instrument’s abilities, but Bellamy was able to skilfully shape the phrases, in spite of occasional squeaks and pops. The slow movement was played slowly but with real intensity by the ensemble, and matching that sound and stamina was another challenge for Bellamy, achieved, but not without effort.

BWV 1043 was another work that Bach rearranged as a harpsichord concerto. But his original also survives, a concerto for two violins, and this was presented by soloists Matthew Truscott and Huw Daniel. Again, the one to a part orchestra balanced well with the soloists, and Butt’s impressively projecting harpsichord gave a percussive edge to the otherwise flowing textures. Truscott and Daniel were ideally matched as soloists. When performing as part of the ensemble, they both limited their vibrato, but as soloists they indulged more – not much more, but enough to stand out. In the slow movement, both soloists made great play of the swells they applied to the long bow strokes, an elegant effect, tastefully done. And the finale was a propulsive and energetic affair, delivered with vitality and rhythmic precision by soloists and ensemble alike.

The programme concluded with Ich habe genug, a cantata well-suited for the assembled soloists, as it calls for bass voice and oboe obbligato. Bellamy was on firmer ground with a Baroque oboe, an instrument with clearer projection and more secure intonation. Even so, it again seemed that Butt was not giving her the space to shape the music, to let it breathe. Brook was again in rich, resonant voice, and more comfortable now in a higher register. One final puzzle in the programme was Butt’s tempo in the aria ‘Schlummert ein’. Perhaps he was taking the words at face value, "Slumber, you tired eyes", but the tempos here were painfully slow, and, with the da capo repeat, the sheer length of the movement completely dominated the work. Brook and the string players were able to maintain the long lines, even at this tempo, but that didn’t stop the music from sagging.

Fortunately, the final movement again raised the spirits. As in both concerto finales, the propulsive dance rhythms here energised the ensemble, and any feelings of lethargy were soon forgotten. The words here have a dark undertone, "With joy I anticipate my death", but in this performance it was joy nonetheless. After a series of surprising tempo choices, especially in the slow movements, everything here felt right, the ensemble, the speed and the mood all perfectly judged for a rousing and satisfying conclusion.

@saquabote

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