Marian Consort spun an enchanting web of sound during Lammermuir Festival 2023’s first weekend

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Lammermuir Festival 2023 [1] – Renaissance polyphony in celebration of the Virgin Mary: Dr Lizzie Swarbrick (speaker), Marian Consort / Rory McCleery (director). St Mary’s Church, Haddington, 9.9.2023. (SRT)

Marian Consort © Nick Rutter

AnonymousMissa Felix namque
Pierre CertonPater Noster/Ave Maria
Jachet of MantuaDescendit in hortum meam
Josquin des PrezBenedicta es caelorum Regina
Johannes LupiSalve celeberrima virgo 

St Mary’s Church in Haddington might ‘just’ be a parish church, but its grandeur and its history mark it out as one of the most remarkable church buildings in Scotland. Originating as medieval minster church, its size and significance were so great that it was known as the Lamp of Lothian. Besieged during Henry VIII’s Rough Wooing of Scotland, the church suffered extensive damage in the 1540s, and services took place in the only half of the building that remained intact for more than four centuries. It was triumphantly restored and rebuilt between 1962 and 1973, however, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of its completion.

It is the central venue for East Lothian’s Lammermuir Festival, and this concert in the 2023 festival’s first weekend marked a celebration of that anniversary by recreating and celebrating some of the music that St Mary’s would have hosted at the height of its medieval splendour. The Virgin Mary herself was at the centre of much of it: the aptly named Marian Consort were the artists, several Marian motets were on the programme, and at its centre was a mass setting that takes as its inspiration the Felix namque, a Marian hymn.

Both this evening concert and an illustrated talk in the afternoon were co-hosted by Dr Lizzie Swarbrick, an academic who specialises in the art and architecture of medieval Scotland. She is an approachably human presence, and undoubtedly an expert in her field, though many of her spoken interjections lacked historical meat and were ultimately rather forgettable.

No, the music was the thing here, and the singers of the Marian Consort spun an enchanting web of sound of such beguiling beauty that if musical time travel was the aim then it was triumphantly achieved. The group consisted of only eight singers at its greatest strength, but they summoned up remarkable richness of sound that outstripped their scale. Sometimes they could sound stripped back and clean, sometimes beautifully rich, and they could switch from one to the other in the same motet, as they managed in Josquin’s Benedicta es caelorum Regina.

Director Rory McCleery conducted with the right sense of the music’s ebb and flow, without which Renaissance polyphony withers into banality. That kept the mass movements moving forwards even when the text dragged: I don’t think I have ever heard a longer Sanctus/Benedictus from this period than the one in this mass! Nothing the singers did was ever in the slightest bit depersonalised or generic: this was vocal style that was full of character, and they changed their musical shape for the motets by other composers, most dramatically in Jachet’s setting from the Song of Songs with its gorgeous harmonies, extra layers of sound and cascading layers of sound to evoke the sensuality and beauty of the text’s unfulfilled longing.

St Mary’s Collegiate Church, Haddington

Appropriately, however, the other co-star was the building itself. St Mary’s, with its huge nave (the longest in Scotland) seemed to embrace the sound and distribute it equally to the whole community of listeners. Unaccompanied vocal music suits its acoustic and atmosphere perfectly, partly because, at least from where I was sitting, there was very little reverb, meaning that the sound dies surprisingly quickly. That evanescence seemed to make this music even more special; something to cherish and hold onto before it disappeared into eternity.

Simon Thompson

The Lammermuir Festival runs at venues across East Lothian until Monday 18th September.

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