Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Dunedin Consort review – celebrating 300 years since Bach began working in Leipzig

9 February 2024

Dunedin Consort in a programme of Bach cantatas for the season, with ‘guest’ appearances by Telemann and Graupner.

Dunedin Consort

Dunedin Consort (Photo: David Barbour)

In February, 300 years ago, J S Bach took up the position of musical director at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where, for the next 22 years, until his death, he would produce most of his output of church music, including his two great settings of the Passion and the majority of his 300 or so cantatas. He was actually third in line for the job – both Georg Philipp Telemann and then Christoph Graupner had secured the post, but had turned it down (each of them using the opportunity as leverage to get better pay in their existing posts in Hamburg and Darmstadt) – but it is to posterity’s benefit that these financial wrangles allowed Bach to find a musical home that would assure his fame.

In celebration of this historical pivot point, at Wigmore Hall on Friday evening, Dunedin Consort, under their director John Butt, presented a programme of three of Bach’s cantatas for this time of year, brought to us by the numbers 1 and 8: BWV 18 (Gleichwie der Regen und Schnee vom Himmel), BWV 81 (Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen) and BWV 181 (Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister). As a nod to those who made it all possible, Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G and cantata Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt, along with Graupner’s eight movement Overture in E-flat were also programmed.

While Bach’s writing shows fierce intelligence and inventiveness in terms of musical structure, Graupner was ever the showman, deploying surprise (some of his settings of the famous Passion chorale are decidedly jaunty) and demonstrating a colourful approach to instrumental timbre – often using unusual obbligato instruments (his writing for timpani as a tuned instrument, for example, is fascinating). It was a pity, then, that the example of Graupner’s work chosen was fairly staid – an Overture scored for strings (with the addition of a bassoon for a little lower heft). Nonetheless, the orchestra brought out the composer’s quirks to great effect, contrasting the moods of the music well in an artfully pointed account that included an unusually robust ‘Menuet’, some genteel skip stepping in the ‘Rigaudon’ and ‘Air en Loure’, and some well co-ordinated swerves of tempo and dynamic in the final movement.

Telemann’s viola concerto was the first of its kind, and understandably so, as bringing a tenor string instrument to the fore among ripieno strings is a difficult trick to pull off. John Crockatt took the solo part for this performance, and turned in a highly accomplished account, making the instrument’s mellow intensity shine in the stately opening movement and the lyrical Andante. The busier material in the Allegro and Presto movements certainly allowed the showcasing of a deal of impressive technique (particularly on the rapid runs), but it perhaps got a little lost in the rather rich string sound that the rest of the Consort produced, proving that Telemann’s gamble needs very careful timbral balancing.

“…the orchestra brought out the composer’s quirks to great effect…”

Helen Charlston

Helen Charlston (Photo: CMF)

Bach’s BWV 18 opened with a delicious plodding intensity from its four viola parts, overlaid with inexorably slow suspensions from the two recorders. Bass Matthew Brook brought crisp sonority to the opening recitative, and the almost neutral precision was echoed in Nicholas Mulroy’s clear tenor and Julia Doyle’s bell-like but relatively uncoloured soprano. The ‘litany’ section, in which tenor and bass alternate prayers, each one ending with a soprano – then quartet – entreaty, is unusual in Bach’s cantatas, but the contrasting voices and subtly applied continuo made for an interesting variation in the form.

Alto Helen Charlston is always a joy to listen to, and her opening aria of BWV 81 did not disappoint; her voice had a commanding edge, but with a solid helping of rich syrup in the lower register. Again, though, the two oboes coupled with the opulent string sound from the ensemble occasionally left her swamped. It was in this cantata that the energy of the concert was ramped up, and the swirling violins of the storm that Christ bids to cease were suitably tempestuous, giving Mulroy a run for his money in dramatic exposition. Brook (as Christ) delivered his ‘Schweig, aufgetürmtes Meer’ with commendable authority, but occasionally (especially in the leaps on ‘Schweig’) a less consistent tone.

Brook featured once again in Telemann’s Jauchzet dem Herrn, and while this was a stirring performance, uniformity of timbre (particularly on the runs in the opening movement) continued to elude him somewhat, his voice production becoming more spread and unfocused. Paul Sharp playing the trumpet obbligato delivered a perfect performance, however, bringing the requisite touch of brightness and celebration to this setting of Psalm 100.

‘Frivolous flibbertigibbets’ (Leichtgesinnte Flattergeister) is a catchy opening statement to a cantata, and the words of BWV 181 continue to challenge the unbeliever with references to Belial, Satan, harmful thorns and hellish torment. The Dunedins conjured all of this drama with nuanced exactitude (the recreated violin obbligato in the tenor aria was utterly charming, even if perhaps Mulroy’s tone here was a little too covered), and the flash of trumpet for the final contrapuntal choral movement added a note of buoyancy.

Perhaps it was the damp February evening, or maybe the programme order, the preponderance of grim Lutheran texts or the occasionally over-lavish string sound, but, despite the general excellence of the performances, the evening seemed to lack the fizz and sparkle that one wants from an evening of Baroque music, and one left feeling that next Tuesday’s pancakes were already signalling their indigestibility.

buy Dunedin Consort MP3s or CDs
Spotify Dunedin Consort on Spotify

More on Dunedin Consort
Dunedin Consort review – celebrating 300 years since Bach began working in Leipzig
Prom 29 review – the promise of historically informed performance into which reality intruded
Out of her mouth review – French biblical cantatas given a contemporary context
Dunedin Consort/Butt @ Wigmore Hall, London