Arcana at the Proms – Prom 71: Bach Night – Dunedin Consort & John Butt perform the four Orchestral Suites and commissioned ‘responses’

Prom 71: Dunedin Consort / John Butt (harpsichord)

J.S. Bach Orchestral Suite no.4 in D major BWV1069 (c1730) (from dfgd on the broadcast)
Nico Muhly Tambourin (2019) (22:14 – 25:28)
J.S. Bach Orchestral Suite no.1 in C major BWV1066 (c1725) (28:12)
Stevie Wishart The Last Dance? A Baroque Tango (2019) (49:28 – 52:37)
Ailie Robertson Chaconne (2019) (1:19:50)
J.S. Bach Orchestral Suite no.2 in B minor BWV1067 (c 1738-9) (1:23:38
Stuart MacRae Courante (2019)
J.S. Bach Orchestral Suite no.3 in D major BWV1068 (c1730)

Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 11 September 2019

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

You can listen to this Prom on BBC Sounds here

A joyous Prom.

One of Sir Henry Wood’s many inventions at the Proms was to instigate ‘composer nights’, where the programme revolved around the output of a composer such as Wagner, Beethoven, the Strauss family, or Johann Sebastian Bach.

This particular Bach night came with a neat twist – the four orchestral suites, grouped together, but each complemented with a new commission receiving its world premiere. The idea of composers writing new music for a group that plays on the instruments of Bach’s time is not necessarily new but it is an intriguing one, and led to four very varied responses. What these short asides ultimately did, however, was make the audience even more in thrall to the music of Johann Sebastian.

The four Orchestral Suites do not get as much air or auditorium time as the six Brandenburg Concertos, but there is nothing to mark them out as inferior works. They make a very satisfying whole, especially when programmed as here by John Butt and the Dunedin Consort – the fourth suite placed first, so that we went through a satisfying key cycle and heard the most affirmative music at the end.

Butt (above) is a Bach specialist, living and breathing the composer’s music. He has scholarly intellect on his side but balances that with enthusiasm in spades. For this concert his energy rubbed off on the audience, and in several faster numbers he literally could not wait to get his hands busy on the harpsichord. Like all bar the cellists and basses he stood to perform, the Dunedin Consort’s freedom of movement translating nicely into their interpretations of Bach’s dance movements, which had a spring in their step.

The last two numbered suites use brass and timpani, so we began with something approaching a fanfare. It took a couple of bars for the Dunedin Consort, numbering nearly 40, to hit their stride, but from then on their playing filled the Royal Albert Hall with the expanse of the fourth suite’s Ouverture, which had a ceremonial air before breaking into a bustling faster tempo. The four dances that followed were fleet of foot, Butt enjoying the humour of the perky Bourrée (10:40), then a stately Gavotte (13:25), Menuet (15:23) and Réjouissance (19:33), at which point brass and drums returned with a flourish.

Nico Muhly’s Tambourin followed without a break, utilising the same grand forces but expanding the harmonic world considerably. As a dance it was syncopated beyond danceable rhythms, starting powerfully but dissolving into D major at the end, dressed by flecks of Stephen Farr’s harpsichord.

The Orchestral Suite no.1 is a rich tapestry of dance movements prefaced by an expansive overture. The most expansive work of the four, its French ‘ouverture’ was elegantly played and dressed with expansive bass notes before moving to a lively fugue, oboes really coming into their own. The dances, again all of French derivation, were light on their feet, propelled by nifty harpsichord accompaniment from Farr and Butt centre stage. They were topped by a bustling Bourrée, its figures flying around the violin section before the complement, a darker, minor key central section for woodwind. With harpsichords silent, this was poignant and beautifully played.

Stevie Wishart complemented the first suite with a striking tribute to the endangered Argentine Hooded Grebe, whose call matched her music and could be heard over the Royal Albert Hall speakers during a witty and rather macabre tango. Once heard the call became ever more poignant, the instruments thrown off course and off pitch. It was effective, haunting and thought provoking.

Ailie Robertson’s Chaconne opened the second half, a reflection on Scottish dance music. A slow and atmospheric piece, it began with eerie held notes in the upper violins which really came into its own when the flutes joined, like Wishart evoking a bird in imagery, though this time a slower, bigger one like an albatross.

For the Orchestral Suite no.2 Butt used reduced string forces and three flutes, headed by the excellent Katy Bircher. The colours of this work are appreciably darker, and the leaner string sound complemented the consoling flutes. After a solemn start to the Ouverture came a lively fast section, then the flutes led us in a sprightly Rondeau, with a quicksilver account of the famous Badinerie to finish. In between there were solemn, more processional numbers – a mournful Sarabande picked up by a quick Bourrée, resolute Polonaise and gallant Menuet.

Stuart MacRae’s Courante was the final commission, an upbeat to the final suite that went off at quite a pace, Stephen Farr’s rattling harpsichord pursued by the orchestra and ultimately caught, before the violins became ‘it’ and took off again, the piece diminishing to a whisper at the end.

The Courante was a cheeky upbeat to a truly joyous performance of Bach’s Orchestral Suite no.3. Trumpets were bright and timpani on point, Stephen Burke tapering his strokes to use angle rather than force to create the sound. The celebrated Air ‘on the G String’ was light on its feet and affectionate without overindulging, while the Gavotte, Bourrée and Gigue had the biggest smile on their faces, Bach’s counterpoint as inevitable and toe tapping as ever. The Gigue was especially upbeat, with rolling timpani and celebratory trumpets.

It is incredible to think that only last year Creative Scotland were proposing to cease funding the Dunedin Consort, a decision that was thankfully overturned. This night at the Royal Albert Hall illustrated beyond doubt the collective, creative bloom the group are experiencing, and it was a privilege to be a part of their Bach night.

Further Listening

John Butt and the Dunedin Consort have not yet recorded the Bach suites, but they did recently release an account of the wonderful violin concertos which you can sample below:

Bach Violin concertos with Cecilia Bernardini from Dunedin Consort on Vimeo.

For a choice recording of the suites, a new disc from the Freiburger Barockorchester is recommended here:

Arcana at the opera: The Devil Inside


Peacock Theatre, London, Thursday 4th February, 2016

Music by Stuart MacRae, Libretto by Louise Walsh

Sung in English with English surtitles

Ben McAteer (James), Nicholas Sharratt (Richard), Rachel Kelly (Catherine), Steven Page (Old Man/Vagrant)

Matthew Richardson (director), Samal Blak (designer), Ace McCarron (lighting)

Orchestra of Music Theatre WalesMichael Rafferty

Written by Richard Whitehouse

As he nears his 40th birthday, Stuart MacRae can reflect on a transformation in his standing in that a reputation for orchestral and instrumental music has become one centred on opera. A decade ago, The Assassin Tree was a bold step that later stage-works – dance-opera Echo and Narcissus, TV opera Remembrance Day and music-theatre Ghost Patrol – consolidated prior to The Devil Inside, which assuredly takes its place next to Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek and Thomas AdèsPowder Her Face as the most significant British chamber opera from the past four decades.

Its seven scenes playing for 100 minutes, The Devil Inside takes its cue from a short story by master of the genre Robert Louis Stevenson. The Bottle Imp (1891) is typical of its author by being forward-looking in concept yet wholly of its time in content. Understandable, then, that MacRae and librettist Louise Welsh should have wished to update this latter such that it takes on an essentially 21st-century ambience of aspiring individuals both attracted and repelled by the trappings of what might be called late-capitalism. Whether such updating could have seen fit to dispose of the actual bottle in favour of a present-day equivalent (a social-media patent, perhaps?) is a moot point, but there can be little doubt that the present scenario works well on its own terms – the mundanity of its environs counterbalancing the otherness of its message.

Scenically the opera is a triumph. Matthew Richardson’s direction is fast-paced yet flexible in its delineating of character and circumstance, abetted in both respects by Samal Blak’s starkly immediate sets – the handling of scene-changes by a group of black-clad and masked figures a telling adjunct to the drama at hand – and Ace McCarron’s typically claustrophobic lighting. This performance took place at London’s Peacock Theatre – its stage well suited to chamber opera, with an auditorium where any lack of perspective is outweighed by its clarity and focus.

The cast could hardly be improved on. Ben McAteer conveys James’ doubt and vulnerability in full measure, his resonant baritone an admirable foil to the edgy tenor of Nicholas Sharratt who captures both the impulsiveness and vacillation of Richard in his fatal obsession with the bottle and its magic. The mezzo Rachel Kelly has eloquence to spare as Catherine, ostensibly a victim of circumstance who belatedly seizes fate by the throat, with baritone Steven Page bringing his customary authority to the ‘minor’ roles of Old Man and Vagrant which frame the drama in sound fashion. Whether the denouement as composer and librettist envisage it is an improvement on the terse original is debatable, but there is no doubting the conviction of Michael Rafferty’s conducting or commitment of the musicians from Music Theatre Wales.

The score itself bears all the hallmarks of MacRae’s lucid and perceptive take on a post-war modernism in which theatrical intensity goes hand with that musical cohesion as ensures the opera’s overall success. The orchestration, for an ensemble of 14 players, is as economic and resourceful as is to be expected from one who might reasonably be termed a seasoned opera composer, making one anticipate more keenly where his dramatic instinct may lead him next. The Devil Inside will be touring these next two months, and should on no account be missed.

Further performances take place on February 9th (Cardiff), 10th (Basingstoke), 16th (Manchester), 23rd (Aberystwyth), 26th (Huddersfield), April 3rd (Mold) and 18th (Birmingham)

For further information on The Devil Inside and Music Theatre Wales click here