Sophie Bevan Shines in Bach and Handel

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Handel: Sophie Bevan (soprano), Cecilia Bernardini (violin), Pamela Thorby (recorder), Catherine Latham (recorder), Dunedin Consort/John Butt (director/harpsichord), Wigmore Hall, London, 26.2.2016. (RB)

Bach: Cantata: Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht BWV52; Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G BWV1049
Handel: Cantata: Alpestre monte HWV81; Concerto Grosso in B Flat Op 3 No. 2; Gloria HWV deest

This concert by the Dunedin Consort formed part of the Wigmore Hall’s Early Music and Baroque series. John Butt and his band of period instrumentalists were joined by rising operatic star, Sophie Bevan. Bevan made her debut at Glyndebourne in the role of Michal in Handel’s Saul and she is a fine interpreter of Baroque music.

The concert opened with Bach’s Cantata Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht which the composer wrote in Leipzig towards the end of 1726. The opening Sinfonia is borrowed from the first Brandenburg Concerto while the ensuing recitatives and arias provide a commentary on Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel. The opening Sinfonia was full of bright, vivid colours and buoyant dancing rhythms and I was impressed with the clarity which the instrumentalists brought to Bach’s contrapuntal textures. Bevan opened the first recitative in dramatic fashion and she provided some vivid word painting when singing of scorpions and false serpents. She brought a probing expressive depth to the opening words of the first aria and a rich tonal lustre to the vocal line and she was scrupulous in using very little vibrato. Bach’s more florid vocal flourishes were handled with enormous vocal agility, although occasionally the balance was not right with the instrumentalists and I could not always hear the words clearly.

The first half concluded with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 from the set which the composer famously dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721. It is likely that Bach drew together concerto movements composed over a number of years and then revised them before incorporating them into the Brandenburg Concertos. Butt took the first movement at a brisk pace and clearly had an eye to period convention, presenting us with very clean sounds on the strings and antiphonal effects. Pamela Thorby and Catherine Latham gave us elegant interweaving lines on the recorders while Cecilia Bernardini performed the virtuoso violin part with aplomb. The Andante slow movement had a nice flow and I was struck by the way in which the recorder players found the expressive heart of the music while retaining a sense of restraint and decorum. The voicing of the fugal writing in the final movement was exceptionally clear and Bernardini provided some dazzling passage-work. The players really brought out the infectious joy of the music while relishing the composer’s intricate contrapuntal sequences.

We moved from Bach to Handel for the second half of the concert starting with the latter’s cantata, Alpestre monte (‘Alpine Mountain’). Handel wrote this work in 1707 following a perilous journey across the Alps. Bevan was impressive in the lower vocal register in the opening recitative and she brought gravity and pathos to the ensuing aria with its daring harmonies and chromaticisms. The Dunedin Consort provided a stately and sensitive accompaniment in the first aria and plaintive lyricism to the second with its gorgeous suspensions. Bevan brought a wonderful expressive richness and refinement to the vocal line in the second aria and I was impressed with the vocal colouring she used for some of the words. There was engaging and well-judged interplay between the soloist and instrumentalists throughout.

The Dunedin Consort then turned their attention to Handel’s Concerto Grosso No. 2 which was written in 1734 when the composer’s attention was turning from opera to the publication of instrumental works. The work is in five movements and is written for two solo oboes and solo violin. Butt brought out the pageantry of the music in the opening movement and Cecilia Bernardini and Huw Daniel performed the dazzling antiphonal violin effects brilliantly. The solo oboe brought a beguilingly seductive quality to the at the end of the Largo second movement which was particularly affecting. The final movement is a set of variations and I enjoyed the way Butt and his players allowed the movement to build in momentum as the music became increasingly elaborate.

The final work on the programme was Handel’s Gloria which the composer wrote in Italy but which then vanished from view until scholars made world news in 2001 when they discovered it neatly filed away at London’s Royal Academy of Music. (One wonders how many more manuscripts are secretly filed away waiting to be found.) Sophie Bevan once again showed her vocal prowess in Handel’s elaborate runs and vocal fireworks (the final section in particular was a virtuoso tour de force). Bevan successfully captured the introspection of the central sections while giving us expressive decorative turns. Butt and the Dunedin Consort provided a responsive and deft accompaniment which enhanced the brilliance of the soloist perfectly.

Overall, this was a first rate concert and Sophie Bevan is clearly a performer whose star is in the ascendant.

Robert Beattie

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