Dunedin Consort Display Contrapuntal Skills in Bach’s Heavenly War

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bach, Zelenka: Dunedin Consort, John Butt (director), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 23.11.2012 (SRT)

J. S. Bach: Cantata 19 “Es erhub sich ein Streit”
Violin Concerto in E BWV 1042
Cantata 149 “Man singet mit Freuden vom Sieg”
: Laudate Pueri Dominum

Joanne Lunn:  Soprano
Robin Blaze:  Countertenor
James Gilchrist:  Tenor
Matthew Brook:  Bass
Cecilia Bernardini:  Solo violin

A dreich Scottish November evening was lit up by some sparkling performances in the Queen’s Hall, but only a paltry audience was there to enjoy it.  Where was everyone?  An optimist would say that it’s a sign of the cultural variety on offer in the city that an ensemble of the quality of the Dunedin Consort could play to such a small audience.  Pessimists who cite the weather, stay silent for now!

If the small crowd was discouraging for the performers then it didn’t show.  John Butt and his crack team were on home territory with this programme of Bach and his Bohemian/Saxon contemporary Zelenka.  Butt is a leading advocate of the one-to-a-vocal part approach in Bach.  Normally I am too, though I’m not sure it works so well in an opening movement of the exuberant power of BWV 19.  Bach’s evocation of the war in heaven between the Archangel Michael and Satan the Dragon is a tour de force of contrapuntal skill, complete with tumbling trumpets and drums, but the orchestra’s exuberance tended to overwhelm the four singers, and I couldn’t help but think that a bigger chorus would be more appropriate here.  It wasn’t so much of a problem in the more temperately structured BWV 149, whose opening chorus is more stately, but the closing chorales of both cantatas carried a good combination of congregational piety and quiet majesty.

The four singers who made such a competent, if embattled, chorus all came into their own in their solo moments.   Matthew Brook’s rich bass voice was authoritative and secure, while the beautiful countertenor of Robin Blaze blended beautiful with the tenor in the only duet of the evening (in BWV 149).  Joanne Lunn’s rich soprano sang with intensity and expressive power, most beguilingly in her aria in BWV 149 describing the protection of God’s angels where the backdrop of lilting strings was both reassuring and entrancing.  James Gilchrist’s tenor was full of character and colour.  The effect in his aria in BWV 19, where the solo trumpet’s chorale theme weaves in and out of the long tenor line, was beautiful.  The effect was more energetic in Zelenka’s vigorous Laudate Pueri Dominum, scored for an effective combination of tenor, strings and solo trumpet.  Gilchrist’s virtuosity was repeatedly impressive, though even he couldn’t avoid sounding tired in the endless semiquaver runs of the Amen.

The stripping down of the texture brought only gains in the concerto where the small group of players (6 strings plus soloist and harpsichord) allowed fresh air to be blown through the texture making every line bright and audible, as if it had had a spring clean.  Butt’s direction was full of rhythmic bounce and appealing energy in the outer movements, while Bernardini’s solo had a lovely ability to spin the long line against the busy backdrop of the ensemble.  The instrumental playing was a delight all evening, not just here.  The solos in the cantatas were also a treat, be it the winsome pair of oboes in BWV 19 or the sparkling trumpets.  Special mention, too, to Peter Whelan’s bassoon, making the most of one of Bach’s rare uses of the instrument for an obbligato, and playing with quiet jollity as he evoked the soul shaking of the night of this world and entering the joy of heaven.


Simon Thompson