Lammermuir Festival (5): Alison Balsom performs and the Scots go wild

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Lammermuir Festival (5): Handel, Vivaldi, MacMillan, Purcell, Albinoni: Alison Balsom (trumpet), The Scottish Ensemble, Jonathan Morton (artistic director and leader). St Michael’s Kirk, Inveresk, Musselburgh (Scotland). 23.09.2011 (LV)

Handel: Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 5 in D
Vivaldi: Trumpet Concerto, Op. 3, No. 7 in D (RV230)
MacMillan: Seraph (2011) (Scottish premiere)
Purcell: Fantasia on one note
Purcell: Fantasia in C
Albinoni: Trumpet Concerto, Op. 7, No. 3 in B-flat
Handel: Concerto Grosso, Op. 6, No. 7 in B-flat


The Lammermuir Festival 2011 showcased another of its audiophile venues when superstar trumpeter Alison Balsom and the crack Scottish Ensemble took on St. Michael’s Parish Church in Inveresk. Situated on the coast of the Firth of Forth, six miles east of Edinburgh, the Kirk is said to have occupied this site since the 6th century. Along with bright, shining clarity and a slightly dry acoustic, it proved a near ideal space in which to hear the evening’s program of Baroque favorites plus one new piece dedicated to Balsom by James Macmillan.

Balsom proved to be as disarming after the concert as she was brilliant during it, and even more beautiful than in her publicity photos; it was easy to believe that as a teen she had played in her local brass band in the town of Royston (perhaps recalling a more upscale scene from the 1996 film, Brassed Off). She explained that it was a B-flat piccolo instrument she played in the Vivaldi and Albinoni concertos, the latter being a particularly spectacular success, highlighted by Balsom’s liquid passagework and her bewitching dialogue in the slow movement with the Ensemble’s leader Jonathan Morton.

As brilliant as Balsom was, however, it was a transplanted Brit named George Frideric who stole the show. The modern-instrument Scottish Ensemble, led with engaging vigor and attitude by Morton, started out with one of Handel’s most glorious of the Op. 6 Concerti Grossi. Playing with engaging swing and phalanxes of sensuous color and sound (only a nearly inaudible continuo harpsichord letting the side down), the group made it immediately apparent why their Italian concertos recording with Balsom (2010, for EMI) had shot to the top of the charts and provided the label with its best-seller of the year. When the great concluding hornpipe of the irrepressibly regal Op. 6 No. 7 ended the concert, the whistling, cheering throng, probably hoping for an encore by Balsom, prompted the Ensemble to play Peter Warlock’s cheerful, brief “Basse Dance” from his Capriol Suite as a fond good-night.

Not necessarily lost in the shuffle was James Macmillan’s attractive Seraph, in its Scottish premiere, which made the most of its 20 minutes. (These same forces gave the world premiere earlier this year at London’s Wigmore Hall.) The trumpet’s staccato, legato runs and calls provided much enjoyable tripping of the light fantastic, while brusque chords and hushed tremolos in the strings introduced moments of Balsom’s unique sunshine. The trumpet’s final passages recall Hummel’s iconic concerto for the same instrument, before the music ends, suspended in air. For music so subtle and nuanced, it created quite a stir and the audience, at least for Scotland, went wild.

Equally magic were the two Purcell Fantasias after intermission. The first began softly, as if the string quartet were tuning, and proceeded through alternating gentle dissonance and radiance, as Purcell does – but here enhanced by a violinist strolling mysteriously across the stage before walking up an aisle through the audience. It was the ideal touch in a venue which, judging by the extraordinary jumble of the cemetery outside, must have seen its share of ghosts.
Only in its second year, another sign of Lammermuir Festival’s growing importance – and  Scotland’s enlightened approach to the performing arts in general – was reflected in a chance encounter I had with a middle-aged Finnish businessman, newly enrolled in the festival management Masters Degree program at Edinburgh’s Queen Margaret University It was no surprise that one of the course lecturers is Lammermuir’s co-artistic director James Waters, formerly Associate Director at the mighty Edinburgh Festival itself. Lammermuir definitely has future wings.

Laurence Vittes