Lammermuir Festival’s high-quality music-making continues in overlooked little churches

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Lammermuir Festival 2022 [2]: (SRT)

Quatuor Agate at Crichton Collegiate Church © Stuart Armitt

Quatuor Agate – Gladsmuir Parish Church, 17.9.2022, and Crichton Collegiate Church, 18.9.2022.
Haydn – String Quartet in G, Op.20 No.2
Webern Langsamer Satz
Brahms – String Quartet Nos. 1 – 3

Viviane Hagner (violin), Till Felner (piano) – North Esk Church, Musselburgh, 17.9.2022.
Beethoven – Violin Sonatas Nos. 8 & 10
Schubert – ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata
Webern – Four Pieces, 0p.7

The Orlando Consort – Athelstaneford Church, 17.9.2022, and Dunglass Collegiate Church, 18.9.2022.
Art and Music in the early Renaissance, including music by Dufay, Dunstaple, Fayrfax and Josquin

Half an hour east of Edinburgh, overlooking the endless bustle of the A1, stands the little church of Gladsmuir. It is most famous for being the site of the Battle of Prestonpans in 1745, though nowadays it is hard to imagine a more peaceful place. Aside from the distant, ceaseless hum of the main road, it feels like the middle of nowhere, with views from the graveyard to the far-off Edinburgh skyline and, thrillingly, to the wide expanse of the Firth of Forth and beyond.

I don’t know how big the congregation is nowadays, though with a location like this I can’t image it is much. It is the kind of place you would easily pass if you didn’t have a reason to go there. Thankfully, the Lammermuir Festival gives us that reason. The festival uses overlooked little churches like this every year as venues for the highest quality music-making, and it turns out that, with its rows of pews and acres of wooden panelling, Gladsmuir Church is the perfect venue for a string quartet. Step forward the four young Frenchmen of Quatuor Agate, who played all three of Brahms’s string quartets in this year’s festival, the first performance, it turns out, of any of Brahms’s quartets in the festival’s history.

And what a job they made of them! They tore through the drama of the First Quartet with thrilling precision, investing it with all the psychological intensity and driving power that it deserves. From the quivering first movement to the intense finale, every phrase seemed invested with meaning thanks to the careful phrasing and vivid colouring they poured into every moment. Autumnal warmth broke through in the slow movement, but even there the drama pulsed underneath. Their Haydn, in this context, was much more than an amuse bouche, with the second movement Capriccio sounding like a darkly intense operatic scena, only just dispelled by a light, tripping finale.

The next morning, in the altogether different setting of Crichton Collegiate Church, they were every bit as convincing with Brahms’s Second and Third Quartets. Crichton is a medieval stone building, so it puts more of a halo around the sound than does Gladsmuir. A vaulted acoustic with a full audience mingles intimacy with distance, and it brilliantly suited what is, perhaps, the most touching movement in any of the quartets, the Second Quartet’s minuet. Brahms writes it like a fond memory, a gentle remembrance of something long faded, and the Agates infused it with a gorgeous air of regret that sounded brilliant in this setting. The rest of the Second Quartet sounded completely focused in its refined beauty, with sparks flying in the high-spirited finale. If I had to complain then I would say that they undersold the playfulness of the Third Quartet. It is not a straightforwardly light-hearted work, of course, but even bearing that in mind the opening was rather polite, and the finale’s variations were uncomfortably slow-moving. However, the return of the first movement’s opening theme injected a welcome burst of energy, and none of this detracts from what was the most impressive artistic debut I heard this festival. They are about to record all three of Brahms’s quartets: based on these performances, that is a CD I will be at the front of the queue to hear.

Expression of a different kind was on offer from violinist Viviane Hagner and pianist Till Fellner in another church whose door I had never previously darkened. North Esk church is on the bustling central street of Musselburgh, but it still feels tucked away and private, an intimate space away from the hurly-burly of the main road. Hagner and Fellner’s programme included two Beethoven violin sonatas which pulsed and quivered in their hands. They seemed to communicate with one another through some sort of mystical telepathy, so close did the interaction between them seem. Sonata No.8 moved from the cloud of swirling energy in its first movement to the scampering lightness of its finale, as playful as a kitten. No.10 had an exploratory, tentative air to it, but always a quiet confidence, and a finale whose variations each seemed to have a character all of their own. Next to this they gave a forensic exploration of Webern’s brief Four Pieces, and they made Schubert’s ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata sound completely convincing on a violin. In fact, it seemed to suit it far more than the cello, with the high-lying movements sounding particularly good, and the long-breathed lines of the outer movements had a gentle sadness to them.

The Orlando Consort at Dunglass Collegiate Church © Stuart Armitt

The tiny village of Athelstaneford is most famous as the site of a medieval battle at which, it is claimed, the saltire was first used and, thus, it proudly claims itself as the birthplace of Scotland’s flag. Its church is a jewel, with gorgeous views to the hill of North Berwick Law, and to Fife across the sea. Like North Esk Church, this year was its debut as a festival venue, with the four singers of the Orlando Consort singing Renaissance music alongside some 15th/16th century pictures in which music featured.

The project was worked out with Professor Tim Shepherd of Sheffield University, whose research project involved finding every Italian picture from the period which featured music (wow!) and the Orlandos choosing a selection of pictures around which to programme their choice of accompanying music. Professor Shepherd himself gave an erudite talk before the concert explaining his research and introducing the pictures that the audience could watch while listening to the singing.

It is a good idea in principle, but I found it strangely unsatisfying. The choice of pictures (eleven altogether) felt rather obscure. There are far more involving artists of Renaissance music than, say, Baccio Baldini, and the music that the Orlandos chose felt like a slightly random set of accompanying pieces that didn’t always gel. Nor was it a good idea to plunge the church into darkness during the singing: the pictures on the screen were perfectly visible with the light up, and darkening the church meant that the translations, which were – subsequently rather fruitlessly – provided in the programme, were completely unreadable.

Things got much better when the pictures were put away and we all went outside. Well, sort of. The second concert by the Orlandos took place in the remains of Dunglass Collegiate Church. Like Crichton (see above) this church was founded by a wealthy family, for priests and singers to pray for their souls for all eternity. Think of how a chantry would operate south of the border. The reformation put an end to all of that, of course, and Dunglass is now a ruin, but it is remarkably intact for all that, retaining its roof and most of its stonework, though none of its glass.

That made it a rather magical place for the Orlando Consort to sing medieval and Renaissance music, some of it from Scotland, that might have been heard in the church during its heyday. The acoustic was a little odd: it definitely sounds like it is outdoors, even if there is a roof, but it is contained within a beautiful, unusual space, giving the sound a very distinctive colour. Like it or not, though – and I liked it – hearing the music in this context was remarkably refreshing, like a glimmering flicker of a lost medieval world brought closer to our time than we would normally hope to hear. And it was the music from pre-Reformation Scotland that was the most moving, with lovely lines of polyphonic splendour that reminded us that, once upon a time, such glorious sacred music was a part of our heritage, too.

Simon Thompson

Leave a Comment