The rehabilitation of Bach’s cantatas is one of Western music’s biggest stories of the past few decades. From being all but unknown to the wider public, they’re now at the centre of the repertoire, and not just for the early music brigade. If there’s a battle still to be fought, however, then it’s over his secular cantatas. The sacred ones are now accepted as a body of nailed-on masterpieces, but there’s still a bit of suspicion surrounding many of the secular ones, perhaps because they were mostly written for the altogether earthier audience of Leipzig’s Collegium Musicum.

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort © David Barbour
John Butt and the Dunedin Consort
© David Barbour

John Butt’s way of solving that problem is to present them as worked-out dramas in their own right, with stories of their own that captivate their listeners. These two cantatas, which closed the EIF’s Queen’s Hall series for 2019, both tell their own tales and, if neither will win any Oliviers for narrative, they’re still a compelling enough basis on which to hang a musical drama. Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde focuses on a song contest between Phoebus and Pan, at which Phoebus is clearly the winner. The biased (and incompetent) Midas chooses Pan instead, and is punished by being given ass’s ears. Zerreißet, zersprenget, zertrümmert die Gruft, on the other hand, features several deities persuading Aeolus to restrain his destructive winds so that they can throw a feast for the name day of an esteemed Leipzig professor.

Not exactly page-turners, then, but Bach exploits every ounce of dramatic possibility from this unpromising material, with humour, pathos and triumph all featuring to showcase his Leipzig performers.

And what great performers we had here. The expanded Dunedin Consort featured three trumpets, two horns plus timpani, together with a wide range of wind and string instruments to bring Bach’s mosaic to life. The triumphal choruses that bookend both cantatas were full of fizz and vigour, and there were moments in Zerreißet where Bach uses his brass with extraordinary colour to illustrate Aeolus’ bad temper, accomplished here to great effect. The duetting pair of flutes sounded gorgeous in both cantatas, and oboe and oboe d’amore did a great job of differentiating between Phoebus’ and Pan’s songs. Leader Cecilia Bernardini performed feats of acrobatics in her solos, and Alison McGillivray’s viola da gamba made a lovely splash of colour in its one featured moment.

The chorus of eight sounded just right in this venue with this balance of forces, and the soloists came from its number. The pair of basses singing Pan and Phoebus were well contrasted. Matthew Brook used his vigorous voice to act (over-act?) his comic part, while Dominic Barberi sounded more aristocratic and grandiose. Nicholas Mulroy hammed up the part of Midas to just the right extent, even including a couple of brays, and Samuel Boden’s tenor was gorgeously golden in comparison. Sophie Junker’s crystalline soprano was a delight, as was the altogether more throaty alto of Jess Dandy. Presiding over the whole thing like a magician was Butt at his keyboard, directing while playing and, seemingly, loving every minute.

I always get reflective as the Edinburgh Festival draws to an end – after three weeks like this there’s so much to get reflective about! – but even so, some lines in Picander’s libretto for Geschwinde took me aback. Telling off Midas for being such a bad judge he says,

“Stupidity and lack of judgement

Now claim to be wisdom’s neighbours.

People pass judgement without thought.”

Three hundred years later, what has changed?


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