The Contest of Phoebus and Pan

Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music 2012

19 April 2012 4 stars

John Butt

Some 24 hours after the British summer officially began the sunshine was streaming into St John’s Smith Square for an all-Bach programme from much-loved Scottish baroque specialists, The Dunedin Consort and their charismatic director, John Butt. This year’s festival is titled Contests, Competitions and the Harmony of Nations and uses a battered violin case and a pair of running shoes for its logo. With this in mind, Butt’s programme married two of Bach’s secular cantatas - Cantata No. 207 'Vereinigte Zwietracht der wechselnden Saiten' and No.201 'Geschwinde, ihr wirbelnden Winde' (The Contest of Phoebus and Pan) with the more familiar Brandenburg concerto No. 3, uniting themes of competition and contest in honor of that Olympic spirit which permeates the whole city - even the most Dickensian streets surrounding Smith Square - this summer.

Brandenburg No. 3 made for a bright opener and the players responded to Butt’s no-nonsense brisk opening tempo with obvious glee. Leaving aside the exquisite Adagio-cum-improvisation from leader, Margaret Faultless [sic], this concerto is probably the most democratic of all of Bach’s work; moments of virtuosity shared amongst the violins, violas and cellos. The Dunedin Consort clearly enjoy such conversational interplay, especially the Mexican-wave effect in the final movement, and were as much a pleasure to watch as they were to listen to.

Cantata No. 207 continued to play with the Brandenburg theme as its first movement is genetically linked to that of Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. The cantata was written for the installation of Gottleib Kortte as Professor of Jurisprudence at Leipzig University in 1726, and the characters within portray characteristics of an academic’s life. The exact nature of the music’s family connection has, for some time now, been open to significant debate with many favouring the view that both openers are linked to an earlier, lost work rather than directly to each other. Either way, it’s a delightful movement and one that the singers in particular have a prominent role to play. So accustomed are we to hearing small ‘Bach choirs’ that one has to remind oneself that even though it was back in 1981 that Joshua Rifkin first suggested that most of Bach’s choral works were sung with a single voice to each line, it has only recently become commonplace to use such small ensembles. In fact, so many modern performances now use this philosophy and—like the Dunedin Consort—make it work so well and sound so natural that it is becoming hard to imagine the music any other way. Without the heft of a larger chorus the success of the small choir rests on a delicate balance of blend and individuality in the voices to make an impact. It is clear that the artistry and sheer musicality of Butt’s singers is so high that they could manage this with ease.

The soloists were well cast in their roles: Susan Hamilton’s ebullient Glück (Happiness) followed from Matthew Brook’s magnificent Die Ehre (Honour) and Nicholas Mulroy’s determined Fleiß. The show was stolen, as so often in Bach, by the brass with their fanfare-like ritornello. The three trumpets of the Dunedin Consort were touchingly ablaze in the last of the evening sunshine as they heralded the arrival of Clare Wilkinson’s exquisite Die Dankbarkeit (Gratitide).

The weightier cantata 201 - The Contest of Phoebus and Pan - formed the whole second-half of this concert. For me (and I suspect for many), it sits somewhat unfairly in the lesser-known realm of Bach’s secular cantatas. The performance was introduced by Lyndsay Kemp, artistic director of the festival, and dedicated to the memory of one of the great Bach interpreters of modern times, Gustav Leonhardt, who died earlier this year. Leonhardt had once suggested that this cantata contains an aria that Bach himself had felt to possess the qualities that make “beautiful”, “smooth” and “artful” music. That aria, Mit Verlangen, indeed displayed such qualities in abundance, especially when sung by Matthew Brook with the charmed obligato parts from flute and oboe. The memory of Gustav Leonhardt and his association with the Lufthansa Festival was fondly remembered.

The Dunedin Consort and their nimble team of singers are yet another reminder that baroque music is flourishing to the highest standard in Britain at the moment. This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and can be heard on BBC iplayer for the next seven days by following this link:

By Ed Breen