Butt Combines the Bachs and Mozart in a Fascinating Chronological Journey

United KingdomUnited Kingdom JS Bach, WF Bach, CPE Bach, Mozart: Peter Whelan (bassoon), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, John Butt (conductor), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 10.12.2015 (SRT)

J. S. Bach: Suite (Ouverture) No. 4 in D
W. F. Bach: Sinfonia in D minor “Adagio and Fuge”
C. P. E. Bach: Bassoon Concerto in A minor
Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor

John Butt is more frequently seen in Scotland presiding over his own Dunedin Consort, but I can think of no better guide to take us on a musical and chronological journey from Bach Senior to Mozart.  Partnering him with the SCO made for fascinating and deeply involving listening.  As an opener, they played Bach’s Fourth Suite on modern instruments but with period technique, creating a fabulously bright brass sound with timpani that were unafraid to thunder and wiry (vibrato-less) strings that were nevertheless full of heart and character.  Those same strings took an impressive lead in Friedemann’s D minor fugue, having been preceded by a limpid flute-led Adagio that sounded so characteristic of the Ancien Regime that it might have been written for a European period drama.

Emmanuel’s concerto exists in versions for several different solo instruments, but whatever version you play it still rings with the composer’s trademark flair and refusal to be boxed in.  How lucky we are that last year’s anniversary drew him more closely to our attention!  The opening was typically daring, with syncopated octaves that leapt out of the instruments, and it seldom let up for the rest of the concerto.  It is praise enough that Peter Whelan could hold his own in such a musical storm; better still that he did it with such virtuosic skill.  His repeated feats of derring-do consisted of octave leaps, stratospheric top notes, chromatic progressions that came from nowhere and dazzling semiquaver runs.  He stood, for the first movement, with legs apart as though about to go into battle which, in a sense, he was!  His languid Gluck encore was well chosen because so well contrasted.

Thus Mozart 40 felt like the end of a journey where you could hear the influences of Mozart’s admired predecessors.  From the very beginning, the strings conjured up an atmosphere of febrile intensity, shimmering and frigid, and the finale sounded turbocharged, full of restless energy that was always looking for an outlet.  Butt took the slow movement at quite a lick, more a one-in-a-bar Allegretto than an Andante, but it fitted well the symphony’s atmosphere, most especially the lower strings, whose bass seemed to turn with remarkable ease from a comforting cushion into a veiled threat.

Simon Thompson

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