Prom 71: Bach Night

Prom 71: Bach Night
Dunedin Consort, John Butt
Royal Albert Hall. 11 September

As part of this year’s Proms’ recognition of Henry Wood’s influence, this concert reflected his 1920s Wednesday Bach Night. The Dunedin Consort and John Butt performed Bach’s four Orchestral Suites, each paired with a short newly commissioned piece (all given world premieres) inspired by the dance movements that follow the opening Overture of each Suite. The first two Suites (4 &1) were followed by the new pieces while, after the interval, Suites (2&3) were preceded by the new commissions.

Orchestral Suites 4 opens in grand style, with trumpets, timps (that from my seat sounded like claps of thunder), together with three oboes and bassoon. In the 2nd Bourree, the latter had one those mad moments that continuo cellists also get, when they go into a bustling virtuoso mode, often almost unnoticed. In contrast, the 2nd Menuet was delicate. Unfortunately, an over-enthusiastic audience applauded at the end of the Suite, thus preventing what I assume should have been a segue into Nico Muhly’s Tambourin. Usually, I consider it the conductor’s (or performer’s) responsibility) to let the audience know when, and when not to, applaud, but I’m not sure that John Butt could have done much about it on this occasion. Proms’ audience do like loud endings, and the Albert Hall management made the extraordinary decision to allow latecomers in, adding noise and distraction to Nico Muhly’s Tambourin. It opens as the Rëjouissance had ended, with lively trumpet and woodwind flourishes. To the accompaniment of harpsichord twiddles, the sound then subsides into a “dreamlike iteration” of the opening of the Suite until the music just stops, almost randomly.

The 2nd Suite is a lighter affair (at least heard live, although the BBC broadcast has far more presence) it’s often tippy-toe dances given a delicacy of touch by John Butt that, at times, took the volume down to barely audible. I always like the 2nd Gavotte of this Suite where the violins try to disrupt the flow of the woodwind by butting in with strident fanfare motifs. The bassoon has another moment in the future of the Ouverture. It was, again, unsuccessfully segued into Stevie Wishart’s jaunty The Last Dance? based on the Tango, a dance that Bach never managed to incorporate into any of his Suites. Harpsichord twiddles featured again, as did a song of an Argentine Hooded Grebe Podiceps gallardoi, an endangered bird that’s made itself heard through loudspeakers – it’s last dance?

Ailie Robertson’s Chaconne was perhaps not the best piece to open the second half, it’s opening rather lost in the bustle of a restless audience. Based on Scottish traditional dances, it has an ethereal mood, the opening halo of shimmering strings underpinned by an EBow sustaining a harpsichord note, later joined by interjections from three flutes. This time the segue worked, into the Ouverture of Suite 2, the solo flute line taken, surprisingly successfully by three unison flutes. The strings were reduced from 8, 6, 6, 6, 3 to 3, 3, 3, 3, 2, giving a delicate and distant quality to the sound in the hall, which was not entirely replicated in the close-miked BBC broadcast.

The final pairing was between Stuart MacRae’s Courante and the Orchestral Suite No 3 in D. The harpsichord again featured strongly in the Courante (which almost became a tiny concerto), as did the trumpets and woodwind as the busy ascending scales of the opening changed to descending scales as the music grinds to a subtle halt. In the Suite, Matthew Truscott’s violin solo in the well-known Air was a delight sensibly avoiding the temptation to over-luxuriate. Other key instrumentalists throughout were oboists Alexandra Bellamy and Frances Norbury, bassoonists Joe Qiu and Zoe Shevlin, and Stephen Farr, harpsichord. John Butt conducted in his own distinctive manner, with brisk tempos and crisp articulation.

I wonder what Henry Wood would have thought?