During Henry Wood’s Prom years, Wednesday was Bach Night. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Wood's birth, the BBC Proms revived this tradition in the final week with a couple of modern twists. The programme, which consisted of all four of Bach’s Orchestral Suites, was performed by the Scottish-based Dunedin Consort on period instruments. What Sir Henry, watching over the proceedings from above the stage, would have made of such sounds, is anyone’s guess. To spice up the evening further, four contemporary composers were invited to create short companion pieces (each around two minutes, the same length as a movement of the Bach) to each suite.

In principle, I enjoyed the concept of juxtaposing the old and new, and performing new works on period instruments. The Dunedin Consort, enthusiastically led by Bach specialist John Butt from the harpsichord (except in the commissioned works which he just conducted), gave a lively and committed performance throughout. On the other hand, though, I felt that there were some presentation problems which detracted from a whole-hearted enjoyment.

Those who had bought a programme book (increasingly rare these days I reckon) would have known that in the first half, the two new works would follow the Bach suites “without a break”, and that in the second half, the new pieces would precede the Bach suites, but I’m sure lots of people had no idea about the proceedings. In my view this concert would have benefited from having a presenter (or the conductor presenting with a microphone), explaining the concept and giving an introduction to the contemporary composers as well, which would have helped to put the new works in context and perspective.

The concert opened with Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 4 in D major, a festive work with trumpets and timpani. As Butt, an eminent Bach scholar, writes in the programme, the four suites are all about dance, and he and the players certainly emphasised this element elegantly in the performance. Both leader Matthew Truscott and cello principal Sarah McMahon played with supple bow movement, feeling the dance rhythm with their whole body. Perhaps the Overture began a little cautiously, but soon things livened up. In the Menuets, we enjoyed the contrasts between the strings and oboes, and the trumpets added joyfulness in the concluding Réjouissance. This was followed by Tambourin, Nico Muhly’s Bach-inspired piece, which began with a minimalist take on the trumpet melody, which was then stretched out as if in slow motion.

Next up was Bach’s Orchestral Suite no. 1 in C major, a lighter-textured work with only strings, oboes and bassoons. The Menuets in particular evoked the elegance of the actual dance and one could almost hear the steps of the dancers’ feet. In its modern companion piece, entitled The Last Dance?, Stevie Wishart gave us a tango, with some seductive playing from the players, although the inclusion of wacky Argentinian bird call over the speaker system certainly caught me by surprise – at first I thought it was someone’s mobile phone ringtone! I later found out it was her message to draw our attention to the plight of an endangered species of grebes, hence the title.

In the second half, the order was reversed, and the Second Orchestral Suite – the most popular one with the solo flute – was preceded by Scottish composer Ailie Robertson’s folk-inspired Chaconne. A delicately woven piece using Baroque flute in a folk idiom, I thought her piece made the best use of the sonority of the instruments. Meanwhile in the Bach, the strings were reduced and three flautists came on to play the solo flute part, presumably so that the melody would be audible in the vast Albert Hall. The trio was perfectly in sync, both in the gently flowing Sarabande and the catchy Badinerie. Only the Polonaise was performed by a single flute (Katy Bircher) and continuo, and for a moment they managed to create beautiful intimacy on stage.

To accompany the Third Orchestral Suite, another Scot, Stuart MacRae, composed Courante, a piece that explores the various elements of the Baroque dance form with technical finesse. The highlight of the Bach suite was inevitably the famous Air (the original version of the Air on a G String) which was delicately and eloquently phrased by the strings. For this performance, the Dunedin Consort fielded larger forces than usual to fill the hall, but even then, the details of articulation and phrasing that is the crux of period instrument performance tended to be lost in the space, and they sometimes sounded a little bland, both in colour and in dynamics. In that sense, I applaud the concept and the sincere playing of all, but somehow the end result didn’t quite add up.

***11