Is it folk? Is it classic? Or is it something in between? The Dunedin Consort’s answer is “all of the above” when the subject is the light music of English Baroque composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). Five members of the Scottish ensemble, whose name recalls an ancient term for Edinburgh Castle, revealed a Purcell who may be unfamiliar to listeners used to the grand sound of Dido and Aeneas, The Moor’s Revenge, and Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary.

The Dunedin Consort and Mhairi Lawson
© Lammermuir Festival

Five Dunedin musicians offered 21 short works by Purcell (and those whom he inspired) at the Lammermuir Festival, held this year in virtual partnership with BBC Radio 3. The concert was streamed from Holy Trinity Church in Haddington, East Lothian.

The star of this gentle program of “songes and ayres” was soprano Mhairi Lawson, whose sparkling eyes and winning smile were exceeded in appeal only by a voice of limitless charm and purity. John Butt, musical director, performed on the harpsichord as both accompanist and soloist, in a program showcasing the impressive talents of Hilary Michael, violin; Jonathan Mason, bass viol, and Alex McCartney, theorbo, that mellow lute with a long neck whose headstock extends far beyond the reach of the performer.

A tartan sash draped over her shoulder, Lawson noted during a conversational interval that 17th-century performers of songs such as 'Twas within a furlong of Edinburgh town, John, come kiss me now from John Playford’s Dancing Master, and Bess of Bedlam were more likely to be actors than classically trained singers. However, she said, she aspired to infuse her performances with both dramatic and musical qualities.

And that she did, remarkably well. Bess of Bedlam is a tour de force in the mad song tradition we typically date from Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Donizetti’s Lucia and beyond. The traditional poem cries out to be sung lustily and with eager melancholy. (An omission in the otherwise informative program notes were the texts of the songs Lawson sang.) In this and Purcell’s other songs, as well as traditional Scottish ballads concluding the program, Lawson provided just the right coloring and emphasis with, as called for, wit and yearning. She easily moved from a commanding trill to a host of difficult Baroque ornamentations, and at times she seemed to capture a sweet note on the bass viol and turn it with subtle inflection into a melisma of her own.

Especially haunting was Lawson’s offering of Purcell’s O Solitude, while she had a chance to be sassy with ’Twas within a furlong, one of many bawdy tunes of the era with their tales of nut-brown maids losing maidenheads to brawny lads on the lea.

The program also included a song from Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and several sets of “divisions” (instrumental variations of sort) on grounds or popular tunes of the time by James Oswald, Christopher Simpson, Thomas Baltzar and others. I was pleased to hear a composer from the French court who is well known to classical guitar students, Robert de Visée, along with songs we learned in nursery school such as Ye banks and braes (played with smooth elegance by Hilary Michael), and Afton Water.

This quintet is but a small part of the up-to-70 members of the Dunedin Consort who perform Baroque and early classical music. Intermingling folk and popular songs with art music of great complexity and feeling, they may have developed a formula for appealing to a wide range of listeners, from neophyte to sophisticate, in a single concert. 

This performance was reviewed from the Lammermuir Festival's video stream.