Lammermuir Festival Provides Beautiful Music in Beautiful Places

20/09/2015

Lammermuir Festival 2015 logo

Gibbons: Tenebrae, Phantasm, St Mary’s Church, Haddington;

Debussy & Ligeti: Danny Driver (piano), Holy Trinity Church, Haddington, 19.09.2015 (SRT)

Most music lovers know the Lammermuir region of Scotland as a location for an Italian opera (beware of mad brides named Lucia!) but it’s a real place.  The Lammermuir Hills mark the southern boundary of the fine county of East Lothian, just a few miles from Edinburgh, and for the last six years the enterprising Lammermuir Festival has carved out a pretty formidable reputation for its adventurous programming, high profile artists and, most of all, creative use of venues.  The festival’s tag line is “Beautiful music in beautiful places”, and they turn many of the county’s ancient churches and stately homes to once-a-year use as concert venues.  East Lothian is a county of rolling countryside, historic towns and stunning coastline, and it makes a wonderfully refreshing change hearing such great music in rural surroundings like this, rather than in the big Caledonian smoke of the Usher Hall or Queen’s Hall.  I’d never attended an event in the festival until today, mostly because I don’t have my own car and many of the venues are off the beaten track and tricky by public transport; but that, of course, is part of the appeal, and a trip to the beautiful East Lothian countryside to hear great music well performed is an undeniably attractive prospect.

The Festival’s main venue (if it has one) is the ancient parish church of St Mary’s in Haddington, about 20 miles east of Edinburgh.  It’s a beautiful building, founded in 1380, and known for centuries as “the lamp of Lothian.”  It has had a pretty chequered history, and only just survived the reformation, but it now looks and feels glorious and is a very attractive concert venue with its ancient buttresses, soaring ceiling and marvellous atmosphere.  It’s the perfect venue to hear top-flight choir Tenebrae in their programme of music by Orlando Gibbons (they were doing Bruckner and Brahms the previous night in a programme that, sadly, I couldn’t make).  As with all the finest choirs, you can take their impeccable blend for granted; but as there are only eight of them that brings the added bonus of luminous clarity, all the interior lines gleamingly precise and every word intelligible.  That helps especially for the long verse anthems like This is the record of John or, most impressively of all, See, see, the word is incarnate, which is like a choral drama running through the life of Christ from incarnation to the second coming.  However, it also helps the tightly organised full anthems, too, like the ebullient O clap your hands, which had two choral groups bouncing off one another while the sopranos carolled beautifully above, and the unaffected simplicity of Drop, drop slow tears was heart-stoppingly beautiful.  Phantasm, who played with them, were far from offering mere accompaniment.  Instead they provided a luminescent, delicately spun backdrop of sound over which the choir told their tales, and their purely instrumental Fantasias has a winsome appeal all of their own – all this in the church’s beautifully generous acoustic, which seemed to collect the music from the performers and deposit it around the listener in a welcoming halo of sound.

Earlier that day, up the road in Holy Trinity Church, I had found my jaw repeatedly dropping in a brilliantly virtuosic piano recital of Debussy’s two books of Images interspersed with selections of Ligeti’s Études.  The genius of Danny Driver’s programming, interspersing the works of the two composers, was to show how remarkably and surprisingly similar they often were.  Was that seething mass of chromatic energy in Mouvement really by Debussy?  Couldn’t it just as well have come from the febrile imagination of Ligeti, whose studies so often resembled studies in perpetual motion?  French impressionism can rarely have sounded so experimental, nor Ligeti so harmonious, as it did here.  Debussy’s darting harmonies and opaque suggestions more than met their match in Ligeti’s clean, invigorating lines, and Driver deserves a medal for so brilliantly depicting the music either vanishing into thin air or, terrifyingly, being sucked through a hole in the bottom of the keyboard.  It’s a marvel he didn’t need a defibrillator after The Devil’s Staircase.  Beautiful places, and music that is not just beautiful but also extremely exciting.

Simon Thompson

For full details of the Lammermuir Festival, click here.  The 2016 festival will run from Friday 10th to Sunday 19th September 2016.

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