Illuminating Bach from Butt and his Dunedin Consort

United KingdomUnited Kingdom J.S. Bach: Dunedin Consort/John Butt (director & keyboards), Emily Mitchell (soprano), Meg Bragle (alto), Nicholas Mulory (tenor), Jonathan Sells (bass), Katy Bircher (flute), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 20.1.2017. (SRT)

J.S. Bach – Orchestral Suites Nos 1 & 2; Cantata BWV 81, Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?; Cantata BWV 111, Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit

The Dunedin Consort have made one(ish)-to-a-part performance their calling card, and they do it as well as anybody. I’m not always a fan of that approach, but you can’t deny that it fits some of Bach’s cantatas extremely well, particularly the lightly scored ones that he wrote for this, the Epiphany season, the darkest and coldest time of year. The thinner textures (and lack of brass or timps) lend themselves perfectly to the Dunedin’s approach, the string writing coming to life brilliantly in, for example, the breathless passagework of BWV 81 when, in the tenor’s aria, the violins depict the “foaming waves” raging around the boat of the Christian’s walk with God. John Eliot Gardiner has written that this cantata is the closest that Bach came to composing an opera, and the coloristic writing glinted through Butt’s direction, aided by Meg Bragle’s dark, sonorous alto and the commanding bass of Jonathan Sells. Nicholas Mulroy’s rich, bright tenor wasn’t quite comfortable with the coloratura, and was more at home in the upwardly optimistic environment of BWV 111, his duet with Bragle forming the highlight of that cantata’s rigorous commitment to divine will. Emily Mitchell’s luminescent soprano made me wish she’d been given more to sing, and the pert, decisive orchestral playing was alert and vigorous.

It’s in the Orchestral Suites that I’m more sceptical of minimal instruments, but I admit tonight won me over because the illuminated textures actually allowed the piece to dance more. The texture of No. 1 was beautifully balanced, the oboes sitting right in the middle of the soundscape, neither dominating nor disappearing, while Peter Whelan’s bassoon performed acrobatics around the lower line, audible but not ostentatious. Butt’s shaping of the overall arc was masterful, his eye to the theatrical coming out as the violins turned and faced the audience to trot out their fanfares in the gavottes, and the various repeats carefully considered and delicately shaded.

The second suite was positively revelatory for me, however. With only seven musicians, including Butt himself, the flute moves from being the centre of attention to becoming primus inter pares, and that gave the suite a strangely melancholy tinge, culminating in a meltingly bittersweet sarabande. The work’s latter section was more upbeat, of course, but the whole suite still felt as though it had had a veil cast over it, and I found the effect really rather magical.

Simon Thompson

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