Thursday, 26 June 2014

Beauty in the toils of Sin - Iestyn Davies, John Butt and The Dunedin Consort

Iestyn Davies (c) Benjamin Ealovega
Iestyn Davies (c) Benjamin Ealovega
Cantatas and concertos by J.S. Bach; Iestyn Davies, The Dunedin Consort, John Butt; The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 24 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Lovely selection of Bach's concertos and cantatas.

The Dunedin Consort's concert at the Wigmore Hall on 24 June 2014 gave us an all Bach programme. Mixing cantatas and concertos, they provided the opportunity to hear works with two violas, and with organ obbligato. Directed from the harpsichord by artistic director John Butt, and joined by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies, the group performed Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 (whose scoring omits violins and features two violas), cantata Widerstehe doch der Sunde BWV54 (with two viola parts), Violin Concerto in A minor, and cantata Vernugte Ruh, beliebte Seelenkust BWV170 (with obbligato organ). They started with an aria by Johann Sebastian Bach's older cousin Johann Christoph Bach.

The concert was called Cantatas for the Soul but might have just as well been 'Day and Night I could bewail my Sins', as all three vocal works had texts concerned with Sin. You could just imagine the heads of the 18th century German dowagers nodding in agreement when the alto soloist first proclaimed 'Stand firm against sin'.

The aria by Johann Christian Bach (1642-1703) Ach ich Wassers gnug hatte had a dramatic opening leading to a wonderfully chromatic melody which was affectingly sung by Davies. There was a lovely freedom to Johann Christian Bach's writing and the performers brought out both the work's beauties and the sense of pain made manifest.

Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 used just two violas accompanied by cello, violas da gamba, violone and harpsichord with the violas played by James Boyd and Alfonso Leal del Ojo. The opening Allegro brought out the lovely mellow tone of the solo violas, and the richness of Bach's scoring for lower strings. All players gave the performance a lovely infectious bounce. The Adagio saw the viola soloists both singing over a perky moving  bass, but both soloists did squeeze the individual notes, rather than giving us an even line. The concluding Allegro saw a steady but delightful bounce to the rhythm and fabulous passagework from the violas.

Bach's cantata Widerstehe doch der Sunde is an early work, dating from 1714 when he worked at Weimar. The work uses two violas parts which gave it a nice richness of texture and the dissonant throbbing at the opening was rather reminiscent of a sedate version of the preceding work. Davies was firm and trenchant in his calls to 'Stand firm against sin', but with some fluent passagework too. The following recit was quite wordy but Davies seemed to relish the words and remained admirably trenchant. The concluding aria had a lovely chromatic viola-led texture with a lively, firm yet airy accompaniment and some superbly expressive passagework from Davies.

After the interval Cecilia Bernardini was the soloist in Bach's Violin Concerto in A Minor (Bernardini and another of the violinists, Huw Watkins, are the soloists on the King's Consorts recent CD of Purcell's Ten Sonatas in Four Parts, see my review), The A minor concerto probably dates from around 1729 when Bach took over the Leipzig collegium musicum, and was written in distinct emulation of Vivaldi.

In the opening Allegro a good rich, yet bouncy accompaniment with a lovely warm feel to the lower strings complemented Bernardini's fine grained, slim and elegant tone. She gave us an admirably even line (no bulges here) with smoothly integrated ornamentation and she was not over spotlit, being very much primus inter pares. The ensemble provided very strong, resonant tones for the ritornelli in the Andante with Bernardini contributing a sweet, endlessly spun line. There was a degree of stylisation to the way the ensemble played Bach's repeated notes, but this set of Bernardini's solo line excellently. The Allegro finale was a vibrant dance, earthy and lusty from all concerned with some lovely streams of notes from Bernardini.

The final work in the programme was Bach's cantata Vergnute Ruh, Beliebte Seelenlust probably dating from Leipzig in 1726. An oboe was added to the mix in the ensemble and the organ had an obbligato role, though Bach probably played the part not on a chamber organ but on the main organ of the church.

The opening aria had a pastoral feel, with instrumental tones and a lovely mellow chestnut sound from the oboe. Davies was beautifully relaxed here, but still with bright flexible tones. The first recit, 'The world, that place of sin' had a suitably jagged and chromatic feel to it. In the second aria, Bach's scoring refers to the phrase in the text 'die verkehrten Herzen' (the inverted/perverted hearts) and it has violins playing the bass line with just an organ continuo above and no lower strings, quite formal in structure but very expressive. Davies's vocal line at times almost duplicated the violins' bass line, the result was expressive and rather intense. The second recitative was an accompanied one, more lyrical this time. The final aria had a much more conventional chugging accompaniment with solo moments for oboe and organ. The quite busy texture tended to merge with vocal line into it, but the group ensured the results were highly expressive.

The performance received an enthusiastic reception from the audience and were were treated to an encore. The aria Gott has alles wohl gemacht, from another cantata Geist und Seele wird verwirret, BWV35, with an accompaniment of organ obbligato and lower strings (no violins).

The Dunedin Consort is hoping to add to its fine collection of recordings with one of Bach's Magnificat. They have raised 85% of the cost and need to find the final £5,800. If you would like to support them, see their website.

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