Friday 21 February 2020

The art of the lute: Thomas Dunford and the Academy of Ancient Music put the Baroque lute in the spotlight from concertos to trio sonatas and a solo suite

Thomas Dunford (Photo © Julien Benhamou)
Thomas Dunford (Photo © Julien Benhamou)
Bach, Vivaldi, Buxtehude; Thomas Dunford, Rachel Brown, Academy of Ancient Music; Milton Court Concert Hall, the Barbican
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 20 February 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Thomas Dunford joined the Academy of Ancient Music in a programme which put the spotlight on the Baroque lute, from Vivaldi's concerto to Bach's solo suite, plus trio sonatas and a mystery item

The Academy of Ancient Music continued its concert series at the Barbican's Milton Court Concert Hall last night (20 February 2020) with a concert showcasing the lute. Lutenist Thomas Dunford joined the orchestra to perform Vivaldi's Trio Sonata in C major RV82, Vivaldi's Concerto for Lute in D RV93, and Buxtehude's Trio Sonata, BuxWV 255, and Dunford also played J. S. Bach Suite for solo lute in g minor BWV 995, and joined the continuo for J. S. Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 2 BWV 1067 which featured flautist Rachel Brown.

In fact, as originally planned the concert should have been harpsichordist Jean Rondeau playing Bach, but Rondeau had to pull out as his wife was expecting their first baby (a daughter, delivered last week), and whether by accident or design Thomas Dunford is Rondeau's brother-in-law.

The concert was fortuitous because we don't really get to hear enough of the lute's later Baroque existence. Rather an old-fashioned instrument by the early18th century, the lute continued on in a few places. But the instrument requires the right circumstances to be heard to its best. Milton Court Concert Hall was perhaps a little too big at times, there were moments in Bach's suite for solo lute that sounded a little too distant, but by and large Dunford's unshowy virtuosity and deft control of the instrument's colours really drew you in.

We started with Bach's orchestral suite, with Dunford joining the continuo group. With a very small string section, six violins, one viola, two cellos and a double bass, this was far closer to chamber music than large scale orchestral playing. The result was that inner lines and orchestral detail came over, the continuo from Dunford's lute and Stephen Farr's harpsichord really told, and throughout the suite we were able to revel in the variety textures, from light to incisive.

Whilst Bach's writing for the flute is as a solo instrument, for a lot of the time the instrument double's the first violin, but provides greater elaboration. This requires a subtle ear for balance and Rachel Brown proved wonderfully elegant and stylish. Never hogging the limelight and always responding to colleagues, but rightly being the centre of attention. I have seen her directing music for re-constructions of Baroque dance [see my review of a 2017 London Handel Festival event], so it was no surprise to find that not only was her playing elegant, but the sense of grace had a real feel of the dance floor whether it was a slow sarabande where you could almost see the figures elegantly dipping, or the livelier items. The sequence of seven movements built admirably towards to the climax, the famous 'Badinerie', here delightfully toe-tapping with some impressive passage-work from Brown.

This wasn't the only solo flute music, there then followed a mystery item which people were invited to guess. This seemed to be the slow movement from a concerto which hinted at early 18th century Venetian origins but may well have been someone else aping the mannerisms. It was a lovely piece, and it would be interesting to find out more, and hear the rest of the concerto!

The first half finished with more Vivaldi, this time the Trio Sonata in C major for lute, violin and continuo. Both the trio sonata and the lute concerto were commissioned by a diplomat from Prague, Count Johann Joseph von Wrtby (rather than for the Pieta in Venice where much of Vivaldi's instrumental music was destined). Both pieces showcase the lute, and whilst the Trio Sonata is not really a concerto, it showcases the lute in a concerto-like manner rather than having an elegant dialogue between the two melody lines (here lute and violin). It was played here as a concerto which worked well, but I did wonder whether it might have been better to lighten the violin line, as in the tutti passages tended to slightly favour the violins. The lively first movement had the lute playing delicate ornamentations of the violin line, the gentle slow movement featured lute elaborations over throbbing strings, and it was remarkable how Dunford got the lute to sing. It ended with a robust dance.

After the interval we had Dunford on his own in Bach's Lute Suite in G minor. This may not (and is probably not) be for lute at all. Bach owned a lute, but did not play it and it is likely the lute suites were created for a strange instrument the Lautenclavier (lute-harpsichord, a gut-strung harpsichord intended to evoke the lute and beloved of German Baroque instrument makers). Like all the music in the concert, this piece was not aimed at the concert hall but the salon or the private parlour, and whilst Milton Court Concert Hall is on the small side by modern standards, it is large compared to these private places. From row N, we had to strain at first to hear some of the more intricate passages from Dunford's lute and though his playing did draw us in, I rather felt that the people listening on the Live Stream of the concert might have got the better deal. This is where period performance practice breaks down, we lack the period audience used to quieter sounds with ears adjusted life where the noise level is not always insistent, and we lack the conventions of the original performance in intimate venues. Heretically, I did wonder whether having some discreet amplification might have been better.

The first movement was delicate and intimate, the rhapsodic passages rather evocative (the suite is a re-write of Bach's Fifth Cello Suite), whilst the 'Allemande' was thoughtful and sonorous. There was less sense of dance in these movements, the 'Courante' full of lovely details and the 'Sarabande' slow and melancholy. The 'Gavottes' were perkier, and more danceable-to, whilst the final 'Gigue' was gently engaging with a real lilt.

Next came a real novelty, Dietrich Buxtehude's Trio Sonata for violin, viola da gamba and continuo in B flat major, played by Bojan Cicic (violin), Imogen Seth-Smith (viola da gamba), Thomas Dunford and Stephen Farr (both continuo). The work comes from Buxtehude's Opus 1, a set of trio sonatas published in Hamburg in 1694. As large chunks of Buxtehude's output has disappeared we must be grateful for the things that have survived. This was a lovely piece, the lively opening movement had rather a French atmosphere, a long violin solo over a ground bass, eventually taken over by the viola da gamba and then the two indulging in a dialogue, over the ground bass. There was something rather free about the slow movement, the violin and viola da gamba indulging in a rhapsodic dialogue, with a lively finale full of engaging textures. We really came to appreciate the way Buxtehude brought out the contrast in texture of the violin lines and richness of the viola da gamba's more chordal approach.

Finally, Vivaldi's Lute concerto, often heard in versions for the modern guitar this was a welcome chance to hear it played on the original. It is a relatively short piece, and Vivaldi clearly gave great thought to how to showcase the lute and not have it overwhelmed by the strings. The crisply perky first movement featured tutti passages full of engaging brio, in dialogue with solo moments for the lute with just a bass line. The slow movement again featured a lovely elaborate singing line from the lute over one of Vivaldi's delicate throbbing string passages, and the finale was an engaging romp. Here, and throughout the evening, Dunford's command of the elaboration and ornamentation in the lute writing was effortlessly masterful.

The audience was rightly enthusiastic, and we were treated to a reprise of the slow movement of the concerto.

The concert is repeated at West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge on 23 February 2020.

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