The Dunedin Consort are, as I write, engaged in recording Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. On the eve of this undertaking, they presented the third and final part of their Brandenburg/Cantata series. The format of paired concerto and cantata in either half contained a novelty: this was the first time I'd heard the consort play a composer other than Bach.

Matthew Brook © Richard Shymansky
Matthew Brook
© Richard Shymansky

Alongside three Bach works was Handel's Cecilia, volgi un sguardo. Composed as an interlude to Alexander's Feast, the cantata is scored for soprano, tenor, strings and continuo. This combination was completely free from any of the balance issues occasioned by the more variable dynamics of wind instruments. David Vickers' fine programme note confirmed that Handel – like Bach – has done more for the concept of recycling than the Green Party, and why not? Working musicians, living in the moment, Bach and Handel would both have been astonished at any notion of compositional overview (and even more astonished that this would matter for them in 2012!).

The poetry and much of the music were drawn from Handel's Splenda l'alba in oriente, HWV 166. The text entreats St. Cecilia to look upon celebrations in her honour. I found this text, which banged on endlessly about virtue, turgid – but fortunately, the linguistic element was soon eclipsed by the musical performance. Soprano Susan Hamilton and tenor Nicholas Mulroy were in excellent voice in recitative, aria and closing duet. The playfulness of 'Sei cara, sei bella' was wonderfully captured by Hamilton. Almost like music hall in its cheeriness, it contains a contrasting and very tender passage about 'pure ardour and serene love'. The tempo reduces dramatically and the previously jaunty accompaniment figures are replaced by beautiful, quietly pulsing chords. This was a magical moment in which you could see and feel the rapt attention and enjoyment of the whole ensemble.

Both soloists also featured, along with mezzo-soprano Claire Wilkinson and bass Matthew Brook in Bach's Cantata BWV 174, 'Ich Liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte'. Brook was outstanding in the aria 'Greifet zu, fasst das Heil'. A Germanic 'carpe diem', it petitions the listener to seize opportunities – albeit more in hope of salvation than earthly riches. The vocal range of the aria is very wide and Brook exuded an assuring power in all registers. Bach the recycler was very much in evidence, as the cantata is bookended by borrowings: the Sinfonia is a reworking of the opening of the third Brandenburg Concerto, with added horn parts, and the closing chorale melody is also the one which closes the more monumental St. John Passion. Like many great musical moments, this chorale contains a paradox: the closing section features many short phrases and resultant pauses, yet somehow the magnetic pull of the ending remains undiluted.

Variety and contrast seem to be watchwords in Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, whether it be across the set of six, in a pairing such as this evening's, or even within a single concerto. In the case of the Brandenburg Concerto no. 1 in F, BWV 1046, the contrast can be found in a single, closing movement. This Menuet clinches, to my mind, a very elusive mood – dignity free of pomposity – and the Dunedin Consort captured this perfectly. Various members of the consort shone in the movement's episodes: notably Peter Whelan on bassoon, along with oboists Alexandra Bellamy and Leo Duarte in the Trio I, and Anneke Scott and Joseph Walters on horns in the Trio II. Intriguingly, this second trio manages to sneak quadruple time into a movement otherwise entirely in triple time. I suppose the horns' hunting and militaristic overtones, mentioned in John Butt's excellent programme note, would not really work in three. Perhaps the most telling contrast is that between the short phrases of the dance-like movements and the seemingly endless phrases in the Adagio. Poignantly harmonised, these passages demanded great pacing and breath control from the oboists, who put in an impressive shift across the evening.

More typical in its three-movement structure, the Brandenburg Concerto no. 2 in F, BWV 1047 also has a heart-rending slow movement. Marked Andante as opposed to Adagio, it featured the excellent Pamela Thorby on recorder, trading phrases with the aforementioned oboists and Cecilia Bernardini on violin. The outer movements shone thanks to the presence of trumpeter David Blackadder. Reading his pedigree in the programme, one might have expected something special, but I felt his playing exceeded all possible expectations. Technically brilliant and brimming with musicality, his dynamic playing – amazingly quiet in some very high passages – added something very special to a very enjoyable evening.