There's nothing like a Brandenburg to blow away Christmas cobwebs. Alongside contrasting cantatas, the Dunedin Consort offered the 3rd and 5th from Bach's 1721 set of six concerti grossi. This made for a compact and nicely balanced programme, contrasting the sacred with the secular and vocal with purely instrumental timbres.

Susan Hamilton
Susan Hamilton

At the end of a week whose news headlines assured us that 2012 will even tougher than 2011, the sizeable Edinburgh audience were led into the new musical year in the most confident, optimistic way possible: with the Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G, BWV 1048. Directed from the keyboard by John Butt, this was a joyous performance in which it was clear that all were delighted to be taking part. The communication between Butt and the ensemble was excellent; he was, quite simply, the instant embodiment of decisions taken earlier in rehearsal and the sense of ensemble was impressive. This was particularly true in the tiny second movement when the solo keyboard is rejoined, in the final two chords, by a warm glow of strings before all launch into the ebullient final 'Allegro'.

Unlike No. 3, the Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 in D, BWV 1050 has an obvious 'concertino', or group of soloists, comprising the contrasting timbres of violin (Cecilia Bernardini), transverse flute (Lisa Beznosiuk) and harpsichord (Butt). In his learned but very accessible programme notes, Butt points out the novelty of the use of flute and harpsichord as solo instruments. Never one to dabble in half-measures, Bach includes a sizeable cadenza for harpsichord. Building towards a crazed, tocatta-like climax, this was delivered with great panache. All three soloists were excellent, particularly in the central 'Affetuoso' where, unaccompanied by the ripieno (non-soloist section), their understated expressiveness had a lovely, light freedom. Although not featured as a named soloist, William Hunt was impressively agile on the violone.

Both programmed cantatas shared certain features: a quartet of vocal soloists who come together in the chorales; texts commending submission to a higher will; both relate to the same epiphanic Sunday in the church year. Oboist Alfredo Bernardini, was in fine lyrical form in the opening movement of Bach's Cantata BWV 156, 'Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe' ('I stand with one foot in the grave'). Many will know this movement as the central 'Largo' in Bach's Keyboard Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056. Tenor Nicholas Mulroy, wove impassioned coloratura phrases around the core, titular chorale tune, tenderly supplied from backstage by Susan Hamilton. Lest it be feared that the sepulchral title suggests a central affection of exhausted resignation, it should be stressed that a mood of charged anticipation of union on the part of the faithful is more the case, and evidently so in this performance. The highly communicative and expressive alto, Clare Wilkinson conveyed this sentiment perfectly in the aria 'Herr, was du willt, soll mir gefallen' (Lord, what thou wilt shall be my pleasure).

Cantata BWV 72, 'Alles nur nach Gottes Willen' ('Everything according to God's will alone'), although sharing the theme of sublimation, is a much brisker affair than BWV 156. This is especially true of the opening chorus. Clare Wilkinson was again in fine voice in the recitative, arioso and aria, 'O selger Christ' ('O blessed Christian'). Susan Hamilton's beautifully delivered 'Mein Jesus will es tun' ('My Jesus will do it') peaked at the closing frisson-fuelled flourish where the voice leaps up six notes, then down seven before coming to rest. Bass Robert Davies, delivered dramatically angular, narrative recitative and arioso recitative with rich tone throughout both cantatas.

This concert was the first of a series of three pairings of Brandenburg Concertos and Cantatas. The following two take place in the same venue on 7 February and 6 May, in between which the Dunedin Consort will also be preparing the St. Matthew Passion for performance on 28 March: all dates for local diaries.