‘More Beautiful Music – More Beautiful Places’

D James Ross reviews the 2018 Lammermuir Festival

A Right Royal Recital

Our ears were still ringing from the BBCSSO’s magisterial account of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony in St Mary’s Collegiate Church, Haddington, in the opening concert of the 2018 Lammermuir Festival, as we settled for an event on the opposite scale. Bach scholar, keyboard player and conductor John Butt had chosen the intimate setting of Gladsmuir Parish Church for his mid-afternoon account with explanations of Bach’s Musical Offering. With the help of seven instrumentalists from the Dunedin Consort, Butt explained and illustrated the context, structure and style of the modest three-part Ricercar, the ten Canons, the Trio Sonata and the magnificent six-part Ricercar which make up Bach’s BWV 1079. The performance opened with the three-part Ricercar played on harpsichord by Butt – this is Bach’s memory of the work he improvised on the spot for Frederick the Great on the melody provided to him by the King, the notoriously wayward Thema Regium. Even the great improviser Bach was stumped when asked for a six-part elaboration – the King had to wait until he received his presentation copy of the full set, whereas we only had to wait until the end of an enthralling afternoon.

Butt’s commentary was both erudite and witty – most of the hilarity was intentional, although forgetting his performers’ roles and indeed names, declaring, ‘Well they all look the same to me!’ was vintage Butt. The musical contributions by his players were technically superb and delightfully varied in texture, involving as they did performances on the violin, cello, viola da gamba, flute, oboe, oboe da caccia and bassoon. A particular highlight was Huw Daniel and Georgia Brown’s delicious account on violin and flute, sympathetically accompanied by Jonathan Manson on cello and John Butt on harpsichord, of the central Trio Sonata, in which Bach goes out of his way to demonstrate his mastery of the galant style. The growing richness of the textures throughout the concert culminated in the group’s concluding account of the iconic six-part Ricercar, for which wind and strings combined and gambist Alison McGillivray took to violone to underpin this concluding tour de force. An event which may have looked a little dry in the brochure turned out to be wonderfully entertaining and informative, and it was a tonic to hear some of my fellow audience members humming the Thema Regium as we all left.

Miserere and More

How do you solve a problem like Allegri? This was the issue facing Rory McCleary and his Marian Consort in their programme entitled Miserere and featuring the 2011 setting by James Macmillan as well as the ubiquitous setting by Gregorio Allegri. As a musicologist, McCleary is well aware of the problematic nature of the standard edition of the Allegri, and yet it would be a brave ensemble, which would eschew entirely the stratospheric if entirely synthetic solo soprano ‘moments’. The solution they came up with, pragmatic if not entirely convincing, saw the post-Mendelssohn solo verses alternating with the ‘original’, while a solo tenor sang the chant to the Tonus Peregrinus and the chorus actually sang Allegri. With the audience in position, it turned out acoustically that the solo ensemble would have been better placed at the east end of the 15th-century Whitekirk Parish Church rather than the west, but overall the chorus/solo/chant alternation worked well. A further unexpected issue emerged only at the end of the concert when the ensemble presented an exquisite account of James Macmillan’s Miserere, based upon the ‘modern’ Allegri – Macmillan alludes regularly to the standard narrative chant normally used for the Allegri, which of course due to the earlier choice of the Tonus Peregrinus we hadn’t actually heard!

A searing and imaginative 2018 setting by Gabriel Jackson of Stabat Mater receiving its Scottish premiere, was given a blistering performance by the ensemble. This was probably the most striking music of the evening, but the earlier repertoire including lovely readings of Palestrina’s eight-part Stabat Mater and five-part Ave Maria as well as a very fine eight-part setting by Victoria of Super flumina Babylonis proved the highlights for me. In this Renaissance repertoire the consort found a lovely balance and sang in a wonderfully rich and declamatory style – like many young vocal ensembles, the Marian Consort are not averse to a touch of vibrato, but the sound is generally well-focussed and expressive. An enthusiastic response from a capacity audience elicited a serene account of an eight-part setting of Jesu Redemptor by the Portuguese Renaissance composer Estêvào Lopes Morago.

Charms of the Clavichord

Strictly speaking, the clavichord is not really an instrument designed for public performance – its subtle tone and very low volume level mean that it pleases primarily the performer. However, in pursuit of ‘beautiful music in beautiful places’, the Lammermuir team had persuaded Edward and Anna Hocknell to make available their exquisite 16th-century country house, Fountainhall, for a recital by Julian Perkins. And the period intimacy of the first-floor room proved the perfect venue for what turned out to be an enchanting afternoon concert.

Appropriately enough, Perkins opened with a delightful account of Byrd’s Lord Willobies Welcome Home during which we became quickly accustomed to the clavichord’s soft but subtle voice. By way of contrast, Perkins performed the same piece on a charming Arnold Dolmetsch spinettino, an instrument which had once appeared alongside celebrity puppet Muffin the Mule! Perkins’ amusing and informative commentary introduced a darkly impressive Partita by Johann Froberger, two enigmatic sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and the G-minor Suite by Handel. The latter played a clavichord in his childhood, and Perkins quite reasonably proposed that some of his more conservative ‘Germanic’ keyboard works were conceived on, and perhaps even for, the instrument.

The second half of the concert was in many ways the more intriguing part, consisting as it did of later music actually written for the clavichord, an instrument which continued to enjoy the attention of musicians up to our own times – Edward Heath celebrated taking the UK into Europe by performing Bach on his clavichord! Herbert Howells wrote a not inconsiderable body of work for the instrument, which proved to draw equally effectively on the Elizabethan and Edwardian worlds he knew so well. More recently, Stephen Dodgson has taken a more radically modern approach to the instrument in two Suites for Clavichord. We heard the second, in which the composer builds on the fascinating conceit of fanfares heard at a distance, which the versatile clavichord with its slight brazen after-tone evoked perfectly. As the recital concluded with a set of four Preludes and Fugues from Bach’s ‘48’, I was struck by just how dynamically and tonally versatile this modest instrument can be, and how in the right hands and in the correct setting the effect is simply magical. This was confirmed by a ravishing revisiting of the C-major Prelude, whose subtly rippling arpeggios gave us an encore to treasure.

Consonant Consones

Lennoxlove House, the residence of the Duke of Hamilton, was already long established when Fountainhall was just a glint in its architect’s eye, and its magnificent 14th-century barrel-vaulted Great Hall was the spectacular setting for a morning recital by the Consone String Quartet. In the six years since its foundation at the Royal College of Music, the Quartet has been exploring classical and early romantic repertoire on period instruments, championing in particular the early Schubert quartets and the chamber music of Luigi Boccherini.

Thus it was that they opened with Boccherini’s G-minor Quartet, a two-movement work with a wonderfully soulful Larghetto and a perky and rustic-sounding Minuet. Poor Boccherini has acquired the reputation of being a musical light-weight, but this near contemporary of Haydn is capable of genuinely touching melodies and engaging textures which suggest that his chamber music is deserving of more attention. The first half concluded with early Schubert, his C-major Quartet D46, which opens with a intriguingly dark fugal figure and continues to surprise with striking flashes of originality. The concluding Rondo features a genuine ear-worm, which we were all humming as we headed for interval refreshments, surrounded by the beautiful Hamilton art collection.

Another two-movement Quartet from Boccherini opened the second half – after the Danish String Quartet’s epic account of Beethoven’s op 132 Quartet a couple of days previously, a two movement work seemed eminently desirable! The ensemble had chosen another contemplative work in F-minor, and it duly worked its charms. The concert concluded with the second of Mendelssohn’s op. 44 Quartets, and its E-minor tonality made up a full afternoon of minor Quartets! As in the other works, the distinctive tone of the gut-strung instruments played with classical bows and authentic bowing techniques made perfect sense of the compositional style, with a wonderfully mellow singing tone combining with a thrilling attack without the shrillness sometimes associated with metal strings. The Consone String Quartet are worthy champions of their period instruments and of their chosen composers, and I found myself confirmed in my enthusiasm for the gut-strung sound as well as being newly inspired to investigate further the chamber music of Boccherini.

The first-class authentic/period instrument concerts in the Lammermuir Festival programme are of course just one strand of a dynamic and varied celebration stretching over ten days and incorporating a plethora of lovely venues. In addition to the concerts I reviewed in detail, I also enjoyed a wonderful concert in St Mary’s Haddington by the internationally renowned Scottish Chamber Orchestra directed by Cristian Macelaru. Performances of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony and Beethoven’s Second Symphony employed period brass and percussion instruments as well as historically informed bowing to bring this music vividly to life. It was a mark of this remarkable orchestra’s versatility that their accounts of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony and Nielsen’s acerbic Clarinet Concerto with superb young soloist Mark Simpson were also stunning. Simpson returned a few days later to direct the SCO wind section in a programme including Mozart’s magisterial Partita for 13 Wind Instruments.

The Last Things – A Grand Finale

So how to bring this ninth Lammermuir Festival to a suitably spectacular conclusion? St Mary’s Collegiate Church was once again the venue, and the musical shoulders on which this responsibility fell were those of Stile Antico. This famously conductorless vocal ensemble enjoy an enviable reputation in the Early Music scene, and in this final Festival concert we were given a memorable demonstration of how this had been achieved. They had compiled a concert of Funeral music featuring Heinrich Schütz’s masterly Musikalische Exequien and J S Bach’s epic motet Jesu, meine Freude, but intriguingly including Renaissance polyphonic works in Latin which still featured prominently in Lutheran services in Bach’s Thomaskirche in Leipzig. These included the familiar Ecce quomodo moritur justus by Jacob Handl and Ego sum resurrectio by Hans Leo Hassler, as well as unknown but highly competent works by Ludwig Daser and Johann Knöfel. The former’s modestly dignified setting of Media vita and the latter’s richer In te Domine speravi were both impressive.

Stile Antico produce a wonderfully precise and intensely focussed sound, with a remarkable pinpoint accuracy and unanimity, which belies the absence of a conductor and seems to rely on a thorough familiarity with the music and an almost telepathic empathy. Their habit of standing in positions which ensure that they are never next to the others singing the same part also seems counterintuitive, but this scheme, most frequently involving boy/girl/boy/girl positioning like a mixer dinner-party, works spectacularly well. The group’s chosen repertoire saw every member of the choir singing a solo of one kind or another, and as a choir director I was struck by the great variety in the tone quality of the individual voices. All the more remarkable that they blended so perfectly in a full consort sound, and with no hint of vibrato! Mention should also be made of the excellent instrumental contributions in the Schütz – wonderfully incisive and expressive playing on the theorbo by James Aikers, and fine sympathetic performances on the chamber organ by Oliver-John Ruthven and on the violone by Kate Aldridge, both of whom also made a valuable contribution to the Bach.

A fine opening account of Lassus’ Justorum animae established the group’s superlative ensemble credentials, but in the course of the Schütz this was complemented with frequently ornate one-to-a-part sections, in which the singers rose to the challenge of a more solistic style, frequently decorating their lines in an impressive and authentic manner. Although the Bach motet was probably the most spectacular music of the evening, it was the Schütz, which I found most involving and indeed deeply moving. However it was with the pared-down poise and elegance of an Elizabethan hymn in our ears that we left the 2018 Lammermuir Festival, as a lavish and well-deserved ovation persuaded the ensemble to leave us with Thomas Campion’s powerful Never weather-beaten Sail.

Plans are already underway for next year’s Lammermuir Festival, which will be its 10th anniversary year. The organisers are faced with the enviable challenge of improving on an event, which has made such imaginative use of wonderful venues, filling them with appreciative audiences anxious to hear the distinctive, first-class performers they have managed to engage. Onwards and upwards!