Over the past five years the Dunedin Consort has arrived in style. Life is not easy for new entrants to the crowded market for early music, especially in northern Europe where the period-instrument movement took off in the 1970s, but John Butt, the group’s music director, knows how to attract a hearing.
The Dunedin Consort is based in Edinburgh and has made relatively few visits outside its home territory. Its reputation has spread mainly through a series of recordings that have given the group a distinctive profile – especially its thoroughly-researched reconstructions of early performances of major works, such as Bach’s St John Passionand, most recently, Mozart’s Requiem.
Butt is also an entertaining speaker. His short introduction to this programme of vocal and orchestral music mostly by J.S. Bach managed to deliver scholarship with a lot of enthusiasm and a dash of wry humour (the brow-beating Puritanism of some of the sacred texts Bach chose can raise eyebrows today).
The performances were on a chamber-music scale. Only six players, plus Butt on harpsichord, took part in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, easily enough in Wigmore Hall (though it has been performed by larger ensembles there). The give-and-take between musicians is almost conversational at this level and the playing had both grace and energy, some period-instrument squeaks apart. Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, BWV 1041, with Cecilia Bernardini an outstanding soloist, was even better. The aching lyricism of the slow movement attained a rare eloquence.
The soloist in the vocal works was counter-tenor Iestyn Davies. The cantata Widerstehe doch der Sünde is not one of the favourites among Bach’s solo cantatas – its strident lecturing that Satan will blind all sinners who are tempted by the “apples of Sodom” goes a bit far – but Davies sang it with finely produced tone, especially at the top of his voice. The much-loved Vergnügte Ruh was consoling, pensive, at the end rising to elation at Butt’s speed. Those who grew up with singers such as Janet Baker and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in this cantata may find Davies’s pure fluting short on emotional commitment and verbal communication. The compensation was much beautiful singing.