Lammermuir Festival: Danny Driver | Hebrides Ensemble

The Hebrides Ensemble played at the atmospheric St Mary's Church, Whitekirk. Picture: Contributed

The Hebrides Ensemble played at the atmospheric St Mary's Church, Whitekirk. Picture: Contributed

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COMPOSER focus was the overriding theme in Saturday’s two exceptional Haddington-based programmes, heralding the final weekend of this year’s Lammermuir Festival.

LAMMERMUIR FESTIVAL

Danny Driver

Holy Trinity Church, Haddington

Rating: *****

Phantasm & Tenebrae

St Mary’s Church, Haddington

Rating: *****

Hebrides Ensemble

St Mary’s Church, Whitekirk

Rating: ****

On the one hand, pianist Danny Driver chose to explore the complementary visions of Debussy’s and Ligeti’s evocative sound worlds; while the joint forces of viol consort Phantasm and a cappella vocal ensemble Tenebrae turned the evening focus exclusively on the rich English Renaissance genius of Orlando Gibbons.

Driver’s recital was an extraordinary tour de force: a genuine revelation. By interspersing the intoxicating mood painting of Debussy’s Images (Books I & II) with the extreme shock treatment of Ligeti’s feverishly intense Études, he placed both composers in a fascinating context. It was an interplay that, in one sense, pitched Debussy’s fine-tuned colourings as a poignant reference point for the underlying obsession with tonal resonance in the Ligeti; while on the other, allowed the Ligeti to cast a enlightening retrospective ray of sunshine on Debussy.

Such insights materialised in the refreshing unsentimental piquancy of Driver’s Debussy, which, in Poisson d’or found, among its gorgeous liquid textures, moments of melodic incision that seemed to nudge into the world 
of jazz. Conversely, the hair-raising virtuosity of his Ligeti – the madcap trip into oblivion of Vertige, for instance, or the psychological sonic torture and ultimate exhaustive catharsis of L’escalier du Diable – respected the textural sensitivity that lurks potently beneath the music’s heaving surface.

After that, we needed something calm and restful, which is exactly what the evening’s Gibbons concert delivered. In the warm acoustics of St Mary’s Church, the smooth autumnal homogeneity of Phantasm combined with the ethereal vocal purity of Tenebrae to present a glowing sequence of instrumental fantasies, anthems and, ultimately, that jewel among Gibbons’ madrigals, “The silver swan”.

They were all moments of perfection. In the instrumental numbers, the delivery of the music’s inner subtleties and details were sublime, and in one specific case for the bass viols – the variations on the song Go From My Window – crazily virtuosic. Among the a cappella treats from Tenebrae, the distant sotto voce of Drop, Drop Slow Tears was breathtaking. And when both groups merged in such well-known verse anthems as This is the Record of John, the combined effect was like heaven on earth.

Sunday’s afternoon concert by the Hebrides Ensemble took place in another sacred setting, St Mary’s Church, Whitekirk, a stalky, low-vaulted acoustic perfect for some unfamiliar Sibelius and Bruckner, and a recent work by Australian composer Brett Dean.

The gossamer textures and otherworldly tenor of Dean’s Epitaphs for string quintet – five vignettes written in memory of friends – introduce a blissful ethereal respite between Sibelius’s pungent unfinished String Trio and Bruckner’s String Quintet, whose colossal adagio, played with magisterial density and touching affection, was a golden centrepiece. In the hands of the Hebrides, despite wavering moments from the violins, it was chamber music writ beautifully large.

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