For anyone with a guilty conscience, the Dunedin Consort’s programme of Bach cantatas and concertos, “Cantatas for the Soul”, offered a number of possibilities. You could listen to an uncompromising sermon to help you back to the straight and narrow, and then if still tempted, then death offered the ultimate way to avoid succumbing to worldly pleasures. Alternatively, you could just weep copious tears of repentance and if all else fails, you can just forget everything else and be absorbed in the sheer pleasure of the violin concertos.

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort © Mario Mintoff PhotoCity
John Butt and the Dunedin Consort
© Mario Mintoff PhotoCity

Listening to the lament Ach dass ich Wassers genug hätte for solo alto by Johann Sebastian’s older cousin Johann Christoph Bach gives a fascinating glimpse into the Bach family’s substantial musical heritage; Johann Christoph clearly sharing his younger relative’s gift for using music to probe the hidden depths of the soul. The gist of the text is that the writer does not have enough tears in his head to weep for all his sin. A viola da gamba sets up a mournful introduction building into a musical outpouring of grief in a cascading vocal line, echoed and enhanced by a solo violin. Before he started singing, countertenor James Laing created an aura of stillness around himself, out of which blossomed a pure, angelic voice. Laing was a late replacement for Tim Mead, who was unwell; there was a minor problem of balance with the solo violin in the first section of this piece, possibly because Laing, understandably, had to look down at his music more than he might have liked. As well as the falling musical tears, Laing gave us a heartbreaking sob on the long note of the word "Augen" (eyes), shaping and growing the note before closing the lament in a tightly controlled pianissimo.

Between the cantatas, the two violin concertos gave us pause to regather emotional strength before our next set of advice on conquering sin. Soloist Cecilia Bernadini stretched the tops of her phrases in the outer movements to great effect, particularly in the A minor concerto, pulling up, hovering for just a moment before flying off again. Balancing this rubato, her light and mostly subtle ornamentation was carefully placed to keep things moving forwards, apart from one cheeky high run in the first movement of the E major concerto that just stayed within the bounds of good taste, and made everyone smile. In the slow movement that followed, the thread of a single long note in the solo part, and a beautifully phrased cello line from Sarah MacMahon drew us close in, to a private intensity, full of secrets, that contrasted with the public statements of the cantatas.

James Laing © Mario Mintoff PhotoCity
James Laing
© Mario Mintoff PhotoCity

The two cantatas for solo alto by Johann Sebastian Bach on the programme both dealt with the question of sin. Widerstehe doch der Sünde (Just resist sin) began with distinctive hammering chords in the strings. The hectoring text is an uncompromising sermon, and Laing delivered the technically demanding solo line with a voice that spoke of incorruptible purity and iron self-control through all the long melismas, and unbending in the recitative, despite the temptations offered Sarah MacMahon’s worldly cello accompaniment. MacMahon was a delight to watch, particularly during the cantatas; she was clearly thoroughly oblivious to everything but the music, her whole body responding to Bach’s line.

The strings of the Dunedin Consort were augmented with Alexandra Bellamy playing oboe d’amore for the final cantata, Vergnügte Ruh (Delightful rest), her sweet, dark tone adding a soothing touch. John Butt let the outer movements of this cantata swing and dance, and if James Laing’s sermon in Widerstehe had set an impossibly high spiritual goal, the sparkle and warmth he brought to this cantata, particularly the last aria, suggested that perhaps reaching spiritual purity isn’t so hard after all. The preacher returned in the recitative though, as Laing erupted in fury on the word "Rasche!" (rage) and dealt out a small measure of exciting low notes.

Vergnügte Ruh has an unusual central aria: the continuo parts drop out, and are replaced by several intertwining melody lines on the organ, creating a fragile world of uncertainty, with nothing to hold onto. Organist William Whitehead brought a beguiling legato to the sinful multitude, a siren call that kept interrupting Laing’s tragic solo line. Laing injected renewed brightness to his tone at the end of this aria, when the music finds relief in the realisation that God does not forget those who resist sin.

The final aria deals with the desire for death as a welcome release from the temptations of the world and so the concert ended on the same sunny notes as the violin concertos, with cheerful organ interjections and a sense of spiritual ecstasy from all of the Dunedin Consort.