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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Orchestral Suites
Suite No 1 in C major, BWV1066 [28]
Suite No 2 in B minor, BWV1067 [24]
Suite No 3 in D major, BWV1068 [23]
Suite No 4 in D major, BWV1069 [26]
Dunedin Consort/John Butt
rec. 2021/22, Yehudi Menuhin School, Surrey, UK
LINN CKD666 [2 CDs: 101]

This, we’re told, is “the final instalment in Dunedin Consort’s long-running Bach Masterworks series for Linn.” If that’s true then they reach journey’s end on a high, with a recording of Bach’s Orchestral Suites that captures all of the music’s exuberance, delicacy, vitality and wit, directed with persuasiveness and style by John Butt, and captured in beautiful sound by the Linn engineers.

In his booklet note, written with his typical combination of scholarship and accessibility, director John Butt addresses how far these pieces are really dance music. He concludes that they are concert pieces but that they are nevertheless “about” dance, and it’s that spirit of the dance that flows through and motivates every movement that we hear in this set.

Beginning the discs with Suite No 3 plunges the listener straight into the set’s most exuberant, majestic music, and it’s there front and centre in the glorious trumpets which assert themselves in the Overture with a very attractive rasp, almost a bray. However, this isn’t a performance that’s in hock to its noisiest members. Butt’s reading is one of subtlety and intelligence, even in the set’s most assertive moments. The strings sound like the small band they are, and they’re carefully balanced against the brass. Even the drums, while they rumble effectively, are part of the overall soundscape and they’re never allowed to dominate. The overture is exhilarating, but it’s also balanced and poised. Butt treats the famous Air as though it’s a concerto movement, the all-but-soloistic strings sounding together like a concertante piece. He relaxes nicely into the tempo here, but adds more swagger in a gloriously pompous pair of Gavottes and, even more so, in a terrifically assertive Gigue.

This sets out the discs’ stall in the most attention-grabbing manner you could imagine but, absent the trumpets and drums, the sound for Suite No 1 sounds, if anything, even more rounded and fulsome. With fewer issues of balance to worry about, the music feels like it’s more able to relax and, consequently, there are more opportunities to revel in the instrumental textures, such as the graceful curvature of the oboes in the Gavottes. The Forlane combines energy and delicacy, as though it's dancing with one eyebrow raised, and even the fugal section of the Overture, not to mention the wonderfully fussy Bourrée, have the spirit of the dance running through them.

No 2, the most ostensibly “French” of the suites, conducts itself with what feels like a slightly Gallic archness. If there’s a dancerly element to this Overture’s fugue then it’s a much more refined court dance rather than the joyous exuberance of the other suites. Again, there’s a pronounced concertante element here, and not just thanks to the solo flute. The flute parries with a solo violin towards the end of the Overture, and even in the later tutti sections the fact of having such a small orchestra gives an overall sense of chamber music to the texture, albeit underpinned by a rich bass sound. The Rondeau has the smooth gentleness of a love song (a revelation!) while there’s an air of superiority – maybe superciliousness? – to the Polonaise. However, there’s a genuine kick to the Bourées, and the Badinerie ends the suite in a dazzle.

Trumpets and drums blaze even more brightly in Suite No 4 than they did in No 3, and it gives a nice sense of symmetry to the discs to bookend them with the two most ebullient of the suites. The liveliness of the Overture makes it very obvious as to why Bach repurposed it as a cantata to celebrate the joy of Christmas; its fugue probably has a more celebratory edge to it than any of those in the other suites. The Gavotte has a broad grin on its stately face, and the central Menuet sounds gorgeously smooth in contrast to its corresponding outer companions, while the final Réjouissance has the quality of an acrobatic tumble.

Butt finds new wonders at every turn. Repeats, of which there are many, are never identical: there is always variety of tempo, pacing, texture or layering, and that keeps everything sounding fresh and exciting. Nothing here is routine. His players follow him with playing of subtle sensitivity and, of course, consummate skill. We already knew we could take that as read with these performers, of course, but it’s lovely that the Dunedin Consort end their Bach series by focusing squarely on the orchestral performers who have formed the series’ backbone.

Linn’s engineers have captured the sound with trademark brilliance so that everything is crystal clear and textures are admirably balanced. The understated tinkle of the harpsichord, for example, is always audible, even amidst the exuberance of Suites 3 and 4, and there is a terrific bloom on the sound in the tutti passages. The gentle clicking of the bassoon in the Fourth Suite’s second Bourée is only one of the many delightful details they allow to be brought to the fore.

I will always carry a torch for Reinhard Goebel’s recording of the Orchestral Suites with Musica Antiqua Köln. When I first heard it, it crashed into my understanding of baroque music like an Exocet missile, and uncorked much of the superabundant joy lurking in pieces that, previously, I’d mostly heard played on stately modern instruments. For those purely personal reasons, it’s still my favourite recording. Butt and the Dunedin Consort are very much in the Goebel school of interpretation, though. They tap into the joy that lies embedded in all of these dance movements, and it’s difficult to listen to this music without breaking into a grin. Don’t resist: hear it and smile.

Simon Thompson

Published: November 15, 2022



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