The Dunedin Consort and Players is running a series of three concerts over the coming months, each programming two of Bach’s Brandenberg Concertos interspersed with two Cantatas. Although strictly speaking still in Advent, when Leipzig frowned on elaborate church music, a large crowd turned out to hear this imaginative all-Bach programme for this Christmas season in Perth Concert Hall.

John Butt
John Butt

Directing the Cantatas IV and V from the Christmas Oratorio from the chamber organ, John Butt drew authentic sounds from his band on a diverse range of period instruments, including natural horns, violoni grossi and piccolo and baroque cellos, played without spikes so supported by the players’ calves.

Bach pulled together the music for the Christmas Oratorio from a variety of sources, into six parts: each designed to be performed in church over the Christmas period in 1734. Part IV was written for New Year’s Day, the Feast of Circumcision, and Part V for the following Sunday, concerning the journey of the Magi.

The singers took one person to a part, which might have worked in a more generous church acoustic, but which left this otherwise virtuosic performance vocally light in the choruses and chorales in the less forgiving Concert Hall. In Part IV the singers were struggling to cut through and above the players in places, with a better balance only emerging after the interval in Part V.

Perhaps it is niggling to complain about balance, given some genuinely wonderful moments in the centre of each Cantata. Susan Hamilton’s bell-clear soprano set against plucked continuo and superb oboe playing from Alexandra Bellamy in Flößt mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen was particularly magical, as was Ben Davies in fabulous voice accompanied by solo oboe d’amore and continuo in Erleucht' auch meine finstre Sinnen.

The two Brandenbergs gave the Players a real chance to shine, with John Butt moving over to the harpsichord to direct. It was interesting to hear these familiar works given the period treatment with pared-down strings, producing very individual results. Leader Cecilia Bernardini was on absolutely top form, taking a starring role throughout. The stately fourth movement of the first concerto let players take turns in the limelight, including an impressive section with the natural horns and oboe. Kathy Bircher on flute was a welcome addition for the Fifth, but again there were problems of balance with the flute playing across the stage instead of out to the audience. One longed for her to turn about to face us.

Taken in the round, this was a very special evening, particularly approaching Christmas. As shopping centres and radios play continuous festive hits on loop, it was simply delightful to hear Bach’s music, perhaps as he heard it himself at Christmastime over two and a half centuries ago.

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