Review: Sophie Bevan and the Dunedin Consort

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First published in the Guardian on 24 February, 2016

Bach never wrote an opera but he knew all the tricks and came darn close. Much of his sacred vocal music is dramatic enough for any stage — emotionally charged enough, too, from a singer as charismatic and playful and expressively frank as Sophie Bevan. This week the soprano joins conductor John Butt and the Dunedin Consort for a tour of Bach and Handel solo cantatas cut with spirited ensemble concertos. It’s an evening essentially designed to showcase her splendid voice, and showcase it does, but the band provides the right style and personality for her to spark against.

There’s something brilliantly robust and natural about Bevan’s singing: no artifice, no fuss, a healthy wit, a refreshing kind of virtuosity that’s grounded and almost casual but still totally dazzling. Her voice is bigger and richer than what we’re used to hearing with the Dunedins but it works. In Bach’s cantata Falsche Welt (False World) she entered full-throttle with images of snakes and scorpions then gave beaming confidence to the effusive line “God is faithful”.  In Handel’s early cantata Alpestre monte she was all ardent anguish in the aria Almen dopo il fato mio. In his 1706 Gloria setting — lost for centuries but unearthed in 2001 at the Royal Academy of Music library — she brought a hint of cheek to the lavish repetitions of Laudamus te (“we praise you”).

It was cold in the Glasgow University Chapel: a February night with the heating bust, never a great start for temperamental period instruments and there was some audible limbering up in the opening Sinfonia. But elsewhere the playing was plenty warm, with violinist Cecilia Bernardini trading beautifully-shaped solo lines with recorder players Pamela Thorby and Catherine Latham in Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto.

Touring to Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Wigmore Hall, London and Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge