Housed in Musselburgh's splendidly refurbished Brunton Theatre, this was never intended to be a simulation of 1730s Leipzig coffee house culture, but more a voyage of research and discovery, in which we would embrace the research, guesswork and known unknowns which inform the quest for authenticity. Konditormeister (Master Baker) Falko Burkert, who supplied knee-weakening cake for the capacity audience, explained that recipes used today date from 1820-60 rather than from the time when Bach frequented Gottfried Zimmerman's establishment. The mention of lark pie, eventually banned by the King of Saxony, was fascinating.
Three Bach works flanked these gustatory and intellectual moments, beginning with Orchestral Suite no. 1 in C major BWV1066, which Butt felt almost certain would have featured chez Zimmerman. Scored for two oboes, bassoon, three upper strings and continuo, the sound was beautifully clear. Bassoonist Joe Qiu's nifty playing in the fugato passage of the Ouverture was particularly striking. The same quality informed Tuomo Suni's second violin and Alfonso Leal deal Ojo's viola in the Forlane which furnished a breathless counter to the more oxygenated upper lines. Use of dynamics and articulation was very well considered, particularly in the four paired dances, whose repeats and da capos might otherwise result in a sense of the overly familiar. This felt especially true in the Bourrées where the energy expressed somehow felt like a living, moment-to-moment decision as opposed to a predetermined, unwavering given.
Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht BWV 211 the “Coffee Cantata” is a 'must hear' for those who regard Bach as severe. It was delivered here with a wonderfully light touch, particularly by sonorous bass Matthew Brook whose opening 'kids these days' aria exuded the comic exasperation of a sorely tested parent. Soprano Mary Bevan shone in the role of the quietly defiant daughter determined not to foreswear the era's drug of choice – coffee. Katy Bircher's frothy flute obbligato soared effortlessly above and around Bevan's eulogy to caffeine with an ease which made light of considerable artistry. Tenor Thomas Hobbs joined Brook and Bevan in the closing trio whose commenting nature transformed the singers from their roles of father, daughter and MC to something more akin to members of a Greek chorus.
One wonderful thing about having John Butt present as both academic and performer/director was that he could inform us with authority that about 80% of the music in Bach's Christmas Oratorio had been used in non-sacred settings; so it is not impossible that some of the movements exuded as much aroma of coffee as incense. We were treated here to the fifth of its six cantatas, Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen (Glory be sung, oh God, unto you) BWV 248/V.
Alto Ciara Hendrick joined the previously heard singers for this SATB work which, as the title suggests, opens in full-throated praise mode. This was put across with great celebration and fine balance across the voices ensured that both harmony and counterpoint made their mark. Another string to Matthew Brook's performance bow sounded in the supplicating aria “Erlucht auch meine finstre Sinnen” (Enlighten, too, my dark thoughts). The legato vocal lines were nicely complemented by Alexandra Bellamy's articulated oboe obbligato part. Dunedin Consort leader Cecilia Bernardini also starred in obbligato mode in the vocal trio number, “Ach, wenn wird die Zeit erscheinen” (Oh, when will the time be ripe). Supplying a part which mixed melodic work with sometimes widely spaced arpeggios, she seemed instinctively to know when to merge with the crowd and when to emerge from it.
Since its launch in 2010, the Lammermuir Festival has secured a reputation for curating imaginative events and this was certainly one such event. Its celebration and exploration of music, ideas, taste and commerce shone an engaging light on the place of art in changing society – then and now. I couldn't help feeling that local industrialist John D. Brunton, whose 1951 bequest secured the venue for the people of Musselburgh, would have approved.
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