Contrasting vocal and instrumental, sacred and secular, the Dunedin Consort's 'Brandenburg/Cantata Series II' featured two of Bach's popular concerti grossi, flanked by a pair of sacred cantatas.

John Butt
John Butt

Instrumental contrast distinguished the cantatas as much as the concerti. BWV106, 'Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit' (also known as Actus Tragicus) featured, in its opening Sonatina, lovely recorder writing, tenderly phrased by Pamela Thorby and Catherine Lathan. Few composers, writing a melodic passage for paired recorders which oscillates between two neighbouring notes, would have come up with Bach's imaginative treatment; one remained on the upper note while the other dropped and returned to unison. The pulsing dissonance created by this beautiful effect clinched the perfect tone for this funeral cantata – gravitas, free of sentimentality. The piece's symmetrical structure reflects the text's deliberation on the inevitability of death and, in particular, the effect of the resurrection-based 'new covenant' upon our perception of the event. This results in a magnificently odd central peak where alto, tenor and bass depart contrapuntal texture and ascend together. The solo soprano part, meanwhile, beautifully rendered by Susan Hamilton, beckons the Saviour. Alto Clare Wilkinson shone in the aria 'In deine Hände befehl ich meinen Geist' ('Into your hands I commend my spirit').

Bass Giles Underwood featured as a soloist in both cantatas – prominently in BWV152, 'Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn' ('Step forward on the way of faith'). Effortlessly reaching notes of subterranean depth, he was very assured and expressive. This cantata boasted a greater variety of timbre than BWV106, featuring a trio of oboe, recorder and violin in the opening Sinfonia. This was played with the joyous sense of purpose suggested by the title. By a miraculous coincidence, I was wondering, at the cantata's end, about the range of Giles Underwood's voice, when John Butt reappeared on stage offering a short and very entertaining elucidation of the vagaries of baroque pitch. The note A varying between 392 Hz (in France), 415 and Hz 465 Hz (our current A is now 440 Hz), it seems that European pitch beat Einstein to relativity by many years.

More contrast in instrumental colour distinguished the purely instrumental works. The 'concertino' (soloists' section) of the Brandenburg Concerto no. 6 in B flat, BWV1015, featured violists Jane Rogers and Alfonso Leal. Both excellent players, Rogers and Leal's phrasing blended nicely, particularly in the central Adagio ma non troppo. Minus violins, and accompanied by cello, two violas da gamba, violone and harpsichord, the tone of this work was dark and rich.

A much brighter feel was in evidence in Brandenburg Concerto no. 4 in G, BWV1049, where the concertino featured violin and two recorders. The outer movements held what, for me, were the highlights of the evening. Impressive throughout the work, violinist Cecilia Bernardini was called upon to execute sustained passages of demonic virtuosity. These were moments where one suspected that the music couldn't really be possible, and that disaster must strike at any moment. But this was belied by her look of calm concentration. The ensemble playing was also very impressive in this work, particularly in the closing Presto's dramatically sudden stops, which hint at the approaching end. An excellent and thrilling performance.

'Brandenburg/Cantata Series III' brings this impressive project to a close on 6 May in Edinburgh's Queen's Hall.

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