United Kingdom Bach: Dunedin Consort / John Butt (director/harpsichord). Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 18.1.2010. (SRT)
Bach – Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-6
When you hear a performance of a complete set of works, there has to be a reason for it: the works do not necessarily justify themselves as a set. The Brandenburg Concertos are a case in point. We see them as an exquisite group, and Bach clearly crafted them as such when presenting them to the Margrave; but what is to say they necessarily belong together in performance? After all, Bach intentionally crafts them for diverse groups of instruments, and there is nothing to suggest that they work as a complete set. What if he had only written four, for example; or had written another two in addition?
I have only heard them done together once before, at the 2019 Verbier Festival; but that performance seemed wilfully contrarian, with each concerto getting a different style and approach, intentionally (it seemed) breaking up any sense of the set as a unity. So, if you are going to do the Brandenburgs together then you have to have something to say about them.
I am not entirely convinced that John Butt and his Dunedin Consort were saying something particularly striking about them in this Edinburgh performance, but the sound had a carefully focused concord to it that at least held them together as a convincing unit. The Dunedin approach is stripped back, often with one-to-a-part, and this concert was a textbook demonstration of how that style works at its best. For one thing, the orchestral transparency led to an exquisitely balanced unity so that there was never any musical grandstanding, but instead a lovely sense of pulling together. That’s not all gain – many would prefer the horns in No.1 to stomp a little more assertively, for example – but I really enjoyed the sense of equilibrium where in No.2 the light-footed trumpet was the equal of the recorder, not his master.
That also threw up some lovely spotlights, particularly the violino piccolo of No.1, whose distinctive timbre I had never really noticed before. In Cecilia Bernardini’s hands it sounded almost like a toy instrument, but she was unafraid to release its unusual texture for what it is, and she could still make it sing in the slow movement. The proportional choice of instruments also reflected a carefully considered balance, particularly in No.6 where the violas and viols acted as carolling pairs caught up in a joyous dance. Importantly, there was a lovely warmth to the sound throughout, particularly in No.3, but never in the concert was there a hint of a period performance hair shirt. Many other historically informed performance (HIP) groups could learn from the Dunedin on that front.
John Butt directed from the harpsichord like a master leading a pageant, but took centre stage in No.5 with a dazzling cadenza that was brilliantly focused while retaining the tiniest hint that musical anarchy was nearer than we might think. And if I still have my doubts about doing all the Brandenburgs together, I will concede that if you are ever going to hear them in one concert then it’s quite a treat to hear them done like this.