John Butt encourages astonishing unity from the Dunedin Consort for the Proms Bach Night

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Prom 71 Bach Night: Dunedin Consort / John Butt (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 11.9.2019. (AK)

John Butt (centre front) with the Dunedin Consort

Johann Sebastian Bach – Orchestral Suite No.4 in D Major, BWV 1069
Nico Muhly
Tambourin, world premiere

Johann Sebastian Bach – Orchestral Suite No.1 in C Major, BWV 1066
Stevie WishartThe Last Dance?, world premiere

Ailie RobertsonChaconne, world premiere
Johann Sebastian Bach – Orchestral Suite No.2 in B Minor, BWV 1067

Stuart MacRaeCourante, world premiere
Johann Sebastian Bach – Orchestral Suite No.3 in D Major, BWV 1068

In the 1920s, Wednesday nights at the Proms – facilitated by Henry Wood – were Bach nights. This year’s Prom 71 concert paid tribute to Wood’s championing Bach by presenting a Bach Night on a Wednesday.

For me the most astonishing aspect of this concert was the unity of players within each section of the Dunedin Consort, and the unity of the newly commissioned Bach companion pieces with their designated Suites. What I appreciated most was the full respect of conductor (John Butt) and musicians for all music played; they clearly avoided any effect which would have served only to increase popularity with the audience. Tempi and dynamics were chosen and delivered with utmost dedication to the scores and with a gentler approach than often heard by a much louder and visibly jolly approach of many other interpreters of Bach Suites.

I am not sure if it is a bit of an ask from an audience to sit through all four of Bach’s orchestral suites, three of which are rather similar in structure and two of which are even in the same key of D Major. At any event, the four new dances – presumably commissioned to bring Bach’s orchestral dance movements closer to the 21st century – averted the possibility of boredom. I hasten to add, that even without these new commissions, boredom would have been unlikely on account of the beauty, as well as, tight rhythms and transparent polyphony on display.

The four composers of these word premieres were given strict structure: they had to compose dance movements for the orchestral forces which their pieces were joined to and duration had to be two minutes. I am pleased to report that all four composers successfully accomplished their tasks. At no point of their pieces did I feel that I was nowhere near Bach and I was satisfied that all four composers studied and respected their Bach model. Inevitably, Stevie Wishart’s tango (‘The Last Dance’) met the biggest audience appreciation on account of her including a field recording of the Argentine hooded grebe throughout. On the other hand, arguably this inclusion was a bit of a cheat as the Bach suite, which Wishart was allocated to, does not include hooded grebe in its instrumentation.

The first new piece might have partially fallen victim to the disjoint between the artistic concept and administrative delivery. Each of the four pieces were attached to their Bach suites without any break, as if they were parts of the suites. This strategy was clearly specified in the programme notes. However, when the opening Orchestral Suite No.4 in D Major concluded, doors were immediately opened and many people entered the Hall. So Nico Muhly’s two-minute Tambourin was being played while doors were opened, people were looking for their seats, and a distinguished music critic made his way from the top of the stairs down ten rows to reach his seat in the front row. Bearing in mind that on conclusion of Muhly’s two-minute piece there was a considerable gap while the stage was rearranged for the instrumentation of the subsequent musical item  – three trumpet players and a timpani player left the stage  – this oversight of Royal Albert Hall’s administration is arguably unforgivable.

During all the pieces the upper stings were standing, as was also conductor John Butt. In spite of this tiring arrangement, the blend of the upper strings was astonishing. I am not talking about ensemble playing, I am trying to signify that the players seemed as one. The same applies to the trumpet, flute and oboe sections although they did not have to stand throughout the evening. The lower strings also fitted beautifully and I am delighted that the programme notes specified three violones (rather than double-basses as seen far too often elsewhere in baroque concerts).

The oneness of the flutes gave an extraordinary demonstration. The B minor Suite for solo flute and strings had all three flutes playing the solo part. Yet I heard only one while my eyes saw all three. The virtuoso movements of the Bourrées and the final Badinerie are hard enough for one player but three players blending their virtuosity to such extent is mind-blowing: hats off to Katy Bircher, Graham O’Sullivan and Georgia Browne. To be fully accurate, the Double of the Polonaise was played only by first flute Bircher and the continuo: Bircher’s phrasing and ornamentation presented beauty beyond description.

While singling out individuals, leader Matthew Truscott’s beautiful rendering of the Air (usually referred to as the ‘Air on the G string’) in Suite No.3 in D Major must be mentioned. He was aided by the tempo chosen by conductor Butt and by the exquisite accompaniment.

The individual responsible for the artistic concept and implementation of this Bach Night is conductor and harpsichord player John Butt. I have never seen him before and initially I was taken back by his conducting technique: he was standing at the harpsichord throughout, one hand always playing (mostly important chords), the other hand directing the players (although also turning pages). Soon I concluded that John Butt may be to Bach what the late Reginald Goodall was to Wagner: unconventional conducting technique, thorough immersion in the music and highly musical results. Wonderful.

Agnes Kory

Leave a Comment