Dunelm Consort and Players’ first concert of the year featured some of Durham’s finest singers and instrumentalists performing both cherished and lesser known German Baroque works in the atmospheric setting of Hild Bede’s cavernous chapel.

Opening the concert was the Dunelm Players, with a lively performance of JS Bach’s second ‘Brandenburg Concertos’. The first movement was set up by wonderful interplay between the concerto soloists: Delilah Ferry-Swainson on recorder, Tadwyn Davies on flute, Amy Ying on violin and Martha Lily Dean on trumpet. Excellent use of terraced dynamics was employed throughout this movement, although at times the lower strings became a little dominating in livelier sections in which the full ensemble was playing and at times rushing at moments led to a lack of ensemble tightness. A movement which spotlights the violin, recorder and flute soloists, the second slower movement provided a welcome contrast to the spritely first movement. Opened by a deeply expressed dialogue between violin and flute, they were then joined by the recorder in dialogue. Continuo playing was skillful throughout, with Gabriel Francis-Dehqani on cello and Oliver Morrell on harpsichord maintaining tight ensemble, even at this slower pace. The gentle rise and fall through suspension and resolutions created an emotionally charged performance with good ensemble communication and heightened by well-delivered ornamentation by all. I particularly enjoyed the warmth of the flute’s mellow tone in this movement, especially in the lower range of the instrument’s tessitura. The final movement, with its emphatic opening which announces the return of the trumpet soloist, was begun with panache. Although less confident than the previous two movements in the middle of the movement, any confusion was well regained, and the end of the movement was delivered with conviction. The final trumpet lead into the end of the work was well-controlled and the performance finished with an excellent demonstration of ensemble tightness.

Written by the lesser known J Bach, the next work in the programme, ‘Unser Leben ist ein Schatten’ which is written for double choir, welcomed the Consort to the stage accompanied by Oliver Morrell on the organ. Performed unconducted, the opening entry by the first choir positioned on the stage was impressively together, and the collatura in the sopranos was well-achieved, creating a fine contrast with the more languishing moments. These singers were then joined by the second choir, a trio of alto, tenor and bass, singing a cappella from the back of the chapel. The alternative staging choice created an atmospheric antiphonal effect, and I was only just able to stop myself from looking round for the trio, instead letting their sound wash over me. Moments where the tenor came above the alto part in this ensemble were particularly lovely. Both ensembles displayed an excellent blend, which was even further elevated by the luscious acoustic of the space. Although text was expressively delivered, I felt there could have more dynamic contrast for even more expressive emotional engagement. When the two choirs first sang together it was not always entirely in time, but this was later rectified and displayed impressive skill considering the distance between the two groups of singers. The final section led by the sopranos, whose high notes soaring with ease above the texture, was especially impressive and the final soprano line which was left hanging in the emotionally charged silence was followed by rapturous applause.
‘The singers achieved an impressive blend when singing both as a whole and in smaller ensembles.  All solos performed throughout the work were extremely impressive, and the individual tones of the singers were able both to contrast and complement each other’

The second half of the concert was dedicated entirely to the performance of Buxtehude’s extensive cantata cycle ‘Membra Jesu Nostri’, an infrequently performed work which was lovely to hear for the first time in a live performance. For this work, the Consort and Players were joined by conductor Daniel Cook, Director of Music at the Cathedral. Each cantata within the seven-section work was structured in the same way, constituting of an opening instrumental ‘sonata’, and a number of solo and small ensemble arias which were sandwiched between a ‘concerto’ performed by the whole group both at the beginning and end of the section. The singers achieved an impressive blend when singing both as a whole and in smaller ensembles.  All solos performed throughout the work were extremely impressive, and the individual tones of the singers were able to both contrast and complement each other. Despite some initial intonation issues in the violins, the Players maintained a historically informed and dynamically sensitive performance throughout, with high praise going to Lucy Jackson for her thoughtful intonation through the exposed continuo lines. The organ could have been louder, as it was not always heard of the full ensemble playing and singing at louder moments in the piece. Line and phrases were well brought out by conductor Daniel Cook, and this was well followed by the performers, although sometimes more eye contact was required at the starts and ends of phrases to ensure that everyone was together. Soprano solos from Rosanna Wicks, Eleanor Hunt, Natalie Houlston and Caroline McCartney were all performed with excellent control and technical accuracy, especially in technically challenging melismatic passages. Altos solos from Joy Sutcliffe and Lucy Evans were equally impressive and brought a warmth with their lower range. Tenors Ben Munden and Ralph Skan both delivered emotional and controlled performances, whilst the weight and warmth of bass soloist Phil Normand brought a sense of grounding and grandeur to the entire performance.
‘the Players maintained a historically informed and dynamically sensitive performance throughout’

A personal favourite was the third cantata, whose opening ‘concerto’ presented a decidedly mournful tone that was maintained throughout the section with gorgeous emotional intensity. Another highlight was certainly the sixth canata, where the players were also joined by the addition of two violas, which leant a weight and warmth to the timbre of the ensemble. This was performed entirely by the trio of sopranos Rosanna Wicks and Natalie Houlston, and bass Phil Normand who sang both together as an ensemble and performed individual arias. This cantata took on a slow and yearning mood and the ‘concerto’ featured gorgeously emotive soprano singing which was well-balanced by weighty bass lines which was even more emotionally charged at its return at the end of the cantata. The final concerto ‘amen’ was rhythmically exciting and, whilst at times this could have been even tighter, the rising and falling phrases which were passed effortlessly between parts brought a superb end to a very impressive concert.
Overall, it was wonderful to spend an evening listening to some of the finest musical talent which Durham has to offer, in such a lovely acoustic, both singing and playing to a highly professional and polished standard. Special thanks must be given to all the members of the exec, especially to President Joy Sutcliffe, and to bass Alex Ridley for stepping in at the last minute to sing as part of the ensemble. Of course, thanks and congratulations must be extended to conductor Daniel Cook for so expertly directing the second half of such a thoroughly enjoyable concert.

Alice Latham