Dunedin Consort

Perth Concert Hall

Keith Bruce, four stars

AS the Modern Jazz Quartet illustrated on their 1955 album Concorde, the idea that improvised music was a 20th Century invention is a load of old toot. Their pianist John Lewis traced the origins of jazz back to Johann Sebastian Bach, and specifically his composition for Prussia’s Frederick the Great, The Musical Offering.

The John Butt Octet deploy more authentic instrumentation for their performance of the work Bach composed, around a tricky little theme of the monarch’s own devising, in 1747. The Dunedin Consort’s Musical Offering took the form of a performative lecture by Glasgow University’s Gardiner Professor of Music, telling the story of its composition, pointing out what to listen for, and spicing the journey with some characteristic Butt humour.

In fairness, JSB does lend a hand in the narrative, having composed a work that provides a meticulous structure for the harpsichordist and his fellow musicians to follow. The exploratory Ricercar that he made up to satisfy Frederick’s immediate command is followed by two groups of five Canons separated by a four-movement Sonata, with a more complex sextet Ricercar (played by flute, violin, oboe, bassoon, cello, and bass viol here) completing the structural palindrome. As the Consort’s director explained with compelling clarity and metaphors from the animal kingdom and fairground, such structures are to be found in the individual pieces as well, while the whole work attempts nothing less than a lesson in the musical development of the time, the pivotal Sonata being Bach’s tilt at mid-18th Century modernism.

I fancy that, although not lacking in a conceit of himself, Frederick II would be astonished to learn that folk were leaving a venue in a distant corner of Europe humming his little tune over 250 years later. But really his contribution to that success was relatively small compared with that of Bach, John Butt, violinists Hue Daniel and Rebecca Livermore, cellist Jonathan Manson, Alison McGillivray on Viola da gamba and the flute, oboe and bassoon of Georgia Browne, Alex Bellamy and Joe Qiu.