More musical treasures from the Lammermuir Festival which now faces an uncertain future

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Lammermuir Festival 2023 [2]: (SRT)

Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective

Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective – North Esk Parish Church, Musselburgh, 12.9.2023.

Britten – Phantasy Quartet
Hahn – Piano Quintet
Schubert – Octet

Royal Northern Sinfonia – Maria Włoszczowska (violin), Dinis Sousa (conductor). St Mary’s Church, Haddington, 14.9.2023.

Beethoven – Violin Concerto
R. Schumann – Symphony No.3 ‘Rhenish’

The Lammermuir Festival lights up the path into Autumn in Scotland’s chilly northern climes. It is one of the jewels of Scotland’s cultural crown, and part of the reason for that is the enormous variety it offers. That was showcased in two concerts this week, both in churches, but otherwise as unalike as you could imagine.

The first church was in suburban Musselburgh, East Lothian’s county town, which is effectively now the eastern fringe of the city of Edinburgh. The Victorian North Esk Parish Church hosted the second of this year’s concerts from the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective. This is an eclectic mob of virtuosi, coordinated by pianist Tom Poster and his violinist wife Elena Urioste, to play chamber music outside of the ‘normal’ forms of trio, quartet, quintet, and so on. Poster remarked at this concert that the group is bringing nine works to this year’s Lammermuir Festival, and none of them is for the same combination of musicians! For this alone they would be worthy of a salute: it takes committed musicians to bring to the public eye neglected but worthy works like Ernő Dohnányi’s Sextet or Korngold’s Suite.

It is even better that they play them so beautifully. Britten’s Phantasy Quartet, for three strings plus oboe, sounded strong in its arch-like structure, with wheezy, slightly grumpy string sound sitting against the extraordinarily lovely oboe of Armand Djikoloum, sounding so smoothly mellifluous as to be almost seamless. Reynaldo Hahn’s Piano Quintet surged with energetic contrasts, too. It is an uneven work, working more through striking contrasts than through an overarching sense of musical narrative, but the passion and drive that they brought to it was exciting and, in places, beautiful. The stormy, dramatic opening movement led into a honeyed, mellow slow movement that surged with Romantic colour. The main theme of the finale then sounded so butter-wouldn’t-melt innocent that it seemed almost out of place next to the previous two movements, but the five musicians brought warmth and great colour to it. Hahn is a terrific melodist, but not a great musical architect. Each of the movements, particularly the first, seems to stop rather than to come to a properly argued conclusion, which is a reminder as to why he isn’t quite in the top league of composers; but hearing his quintet played with such commitment and energy as here still served as a lovely treat.

Schubert’s evergreen Octet will have been what drew in the crowd. It was lovely, eventually, though it took a while to warm up. The opening Allegro was very smooth; too much so, in fact, so that it lacked the essential playfulness it needed. Things improved in the mischievous Scherzo, however, and the variations sounded terrific: the theme had the breeziness of a countryside walk while the variations took us into musically distant territory, before the sleek, wryly ironic Menuetto. It seems invidious to single out performers in a collective like this, but the MVP was undoubtedly Matthew Hunt, whose clarinet made an urgent difference in every movement. Sparky, even slightly cocky in the first movement, he spun out the most gorgeous cantabile line in the Adagio and then pirouetted dazzlingly through the finale’s leaps and bounds.

Royal Northern Sinfonia

North Esk Church is a good venue for chamber music because it is so compact. The vast splendour of St Mary’s, Haddington, on the other hand, cries out for bigger forces, and they arrived in one of the festival’s few full-orchestral concerts this year. The Royal Northern Sinfonia are based at The Glasshouse in Gateshead (formerly Sage Gateshead), which is a tempting enough distance away to make a visit to East Lothian both doable and yet still an occasion.

Most of the sense of occasion in their concert was provided by their leader, Maria Włoszczowska, who was the soloist in a brilliantly focused performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, the sort of performance that generates a special magic that comes when the orchestra and soloist already know each other really, really well. On this occasion that produced fireworks, not mundanity, led by Włoszczowska herself, who played along with the opening tutti (a nicely collegiate touch) and then floated in angelically when the solo line began, before giving a performance of the part that felt as though every aspect had been painstakingly thought-through. Like the orchestra, she played with only a little vibrato, but it was spiced in at the end of longer notes so as to give them a songful edge, and there was a recitative-like quality to much of her passagework, so immediate and communicative it was.

The orchestral sound was carefully shaped for the space, with minimal string vibrato and natural-sounding timpani to give them an extra edge. Principal Conductor Dinis Sousa shaped the sound competently enough, but there was no doubt that Włoszczowska was the one in the driver’s seat. You only had to compare the violin’s confident build-up to the first movement’s recapitulation with the four-square forte of the orchestra’s harrumph to see that she was the one in charge. However, they matched her very well in the rollicking final Rondo, even though Sousa couldn’t quite stop himself from pushing forwards.

Włoszczowska was back in the leader’s chair (after a change of costume) for the second half, so there was no one to steal Sousa’s thunder in a gutsy performance of Robert Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony. There was real life in the vigorous first movement, and proper welly to the second, but the grave majesty of the fourth movement was a showstopper, the soaring quality of the sound buoyed up by the austere beauty of the trombones. Not for the first time this festival, however, the star was the building itself: appropriately enough in a symphony that commemorates Cologne Cathedral, the huge space of St Mary’s Church created a cocoon around the orchestra that embraced and enhanced their sound. They sounded totally different but every bit as good as they do in their Gateshead home.

So two concerts, large and small, which offer just a taste of what the Lammermuir Festival offers every year. It has become an indispensable part of Scotland’s musical calendar, which makes it nothing short of a disgrace that Creative Scotland (Scotland’s equivalent of England’s Arts Council) have turned down its funding applications for 2023. Surely Creative Scotland exists precisely to fund organisations like this: a festival that brings world class performers to a corner of Scotland that gets very little music in the rest of the year, and that welcomes all comers with eclectic programmes and cheap ticket prices. It is a disastrous decision that leaves this great festival staring into a very uncertain future, and if it can’t be reversed now then it needs to overturned in the near future so as to save one of the nation’s great musical treasures.

Simon Thompson

The Lammermuir Festival runs until Monday 18th September in venues across East Lothian (for more information click here).

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