The Dunedin Consort is quickly emerging as one of the most exciting ensembles in the UK. A commitment to historically-informed performance practice complemented by a strong belief in supporting new music, makes for a dynamic combination. The group has also enjoyed success with a string of acclaimed recordings which attempt to recreate historical performances of well-known works such as the original Dublin version of Handel’s Messiah or, most-recently, a revelatory performance of Mozart’s Requiem using the small orchestral and vocal forces that were probably employed for its first performance. The presence of John Butt, renowned Bach scholar and Gardiner Chair of Music at the University of Glasgow, lend an extra air of authenticity and esteem to their work.

Iestyn Davies © Marco Borggreve
Iestyn Davies
© Marco Borggreve

Last Tuesday’s concert featured counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, an artist who has also enjoyed a great deal of critical acclaim in recent years including the Royal Philharmonic Society’s 2010 Young Artist of the Year prize. The programme consisted entirely of works by the Bachs, four by Johann Sebastian and one by his second cousin Johann Christoph. John Butt’s passion and knowledge for this repertoire was evidenced by the engaging and funny impromptu speech he delivered on the works early on in the concert, managing to concisely and accessibly convey interesting ideas about the nature of repetition and rhetoric in the music that the majority of the audience no doubt found illuminating.

The concert opened with Johann Christoph Bach’s cantata Ach dass ich wassers gnug hätte, a harmonically inventive and poignant lament. Much has been written about Johann Christoph’s potential influence on the young Johann Sebastian; they were both organists and this cantata revealed a wealth of harmonic invention that is now more associated with the younger Bach. Iestyn Davies’ voice has a purity even beyond what is normally admired in a countertenor, and his performance of this work was infused with the necessary pathos, augmented by the clear intonation of the German words. This piece also shared similarities with Purcell in its harmonic colourings and served as a good reminder that whilst Johann Sebastian Bach is the perpetually dominant figure in our narrative of Western music, many other members of the Bach family, for good reason, enjoyed a prominent and pedagogical status amongst their near-contemporaries (Mozart for instance was influenced by both Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian).

The rest of the concert was given over the Johann Sebastian. Firstly a performance of the Brandeburg Concerto no. 6, a work notable for the inclusion of the viola de gamba, an instrument that was archaic even by the time the concerto was written in 1721. The work is also interesting as there is no violin part, and their line is taken by two violas instead. There are always compromises to be made with historically-informed performance, where there are gains in terms of authenticity, tuning and tone might differ from expected modern standards. Whilst the playing at times was inspired, particularly the antiphonal exchanges between the two lead violas in the third movement, the low-lying pitch of most of the writing (due to the absence of the violins) emphasised the dry tone of the small ensemble, making for an ultimately unsatisfying performance. Cecilia Bernardini’s reading of Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor in the second half was more satisfying and the ensemble’s tone sounded more balanced. Bernardini made light work of the final movement’s rapid passagework.

Both halves closed with other solo cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach delivered by Davies: Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust and Wiederstehe doch der Sunde. In both, the ensemble sounded more impressive as accompanists than when they were performing on their own, and Iestyn Davies performed with expressiveness and intensity throughout.

The enthusiastic audience response prompted an encore, the aria “Gott has alles wohl gemacht”, from the cantata Geist und Seele wird verwirret, which features a delightful and unexpected organ obbligato part played with panache by Stephen Farr.

This was an evening of great integrity marked by some particularly impressive solo turns. A further exploration by this group of the repertoire by the more obscure Bachs would be very welcomed. 

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