I don’t go to harpsichord concerts often, but when I do the atmosphere is normally fairly quiet, reverential; dare I say, stuffy. How refreshing to arrive at this morning’s then, and find a vibe in the Queen’s Hall that was almost approaching excitement.

The Dunedin Consort in rehearsal © Ryan Buchanan
The Dunedin Consort in rehearsal
© Ryan Buchanan

But then, how often do you see four harpsichords sharing the same stage, let alone played by such stars of the instrument? This was the climax of the Edinburgh International Festival’s series featuring all of Bach’s keyboard concertos, so why not go out with a bang? It helps, of course, that the whole series has been anchored by Edinburgh’s own Dunedin Consort, who always pack out the festival crowd. They’re the home team, after all.

That said, during the only other concert in this series that I attended, across town in the intimate surroundings of St Cecilia’s Hall, I was bothered by issues of balance: frankly, the harpsichords were sometimes inaudible. That might have been less pronounced here, but even with four harpsichords it was still a problem, and it made me wonder whether the problem is actually intrinsic to the genre of the harpsichord concerto itself (and it made me respect all the more the recording engineers who manage to convince you on a CD that the balance is fine).

That meant that the harpsichords still struggled a bit to cut through the orchestral tuttis, even when there were only seven instrumentalists, which meant that the finest moment of the C major triple concerto was actually the passage in the slow movement when the orchestra dropped out and the three keyboards were left to weave their melancholy melody through one another’s lines without interruption. Even in the A minor concerto for four instruments, a transcription of a famous concerto by Vivaldi, the balance was better, albeit the finest moments were still the bits were the strings pulled back.

Richard Egarr and John Butt seemed to share directing honours for the concertos, but Egarr himself was in the driving seat for the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto which is, let’s face it, effectively a harpsichord concerto in disguise. With a one-to-a-part orchestra the balance was actually fairly lovely here, with the flute making a charming difference to the texture, and the frequent passages for only three instruments (harpsichord, flute and violin) gave the harpsichord a chance to shine and sparkle. This it did under Egarr’s nimble fingers, playing with a mixture of dexterity and energy, illustrated by the way he hit one chord so hard that his glasses fell off!

However, the most memorable thing in the programme didn’t require the orchestra at all: it was the Italian Concerto arranged for four harpsichords. Egarr addressed the audience beforehand to explain that he had created a double-keyboard version of it, but that the other two keyboards were going to be “jamming” along with it, remarking, “we don’t know what this version of it sounds like either!” Indeed, the improvisatory aspects of it were exciting and refreshing, though always sensitive and well observed. However, I had to suppress a giggle as I saw the four Men in Black stroll onto the stage at the beginning of the piece because I couldn’t help but think of Tarantino. Ares, Butt, Egarr and Foster: the Reservoir Dogs of the harpsichord.

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