Music reviews: Lammermuir Festival, various venues, East Lothian

The BBC SSO, under Matthew Halls, premiered the last of three Prometheus-inspired Lammermuir commissions by Stuart MacRae
The BBC SSO, under Matthew Halls, premiered the last of three Prometheus-inspired Lammermuir commissions by Stuart MacRae
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PRESTONPANS has had its battles to fight – one in particular, of course – but the challenge facing its centuries-old Prestongrange Church this week was to clean up the mess, left by vandals who had smashed 13 windows the previous night, in time for a capacity audience to enjoy Thursday afternoon’s Baroque concert by the Dunedin Consort (*****).

Lammermuir Festival, various venues, East Lothian

Pianist Danny Driver

Pianist Danny Driver

“We have windows,” exclaimed the effervescent John Butt, announcing the success of the repair job, before leading his currently ubiquitous ensemble (its BBC Proms triumph last week following on from its recent Edinburgh Festival residency) in absorbing performances of Handel, Vivaldi and Bach that were the latest in its current Lammermuir Festival residency, and which seemed to symbolise the unconquered spirit of the moment.

With Butt, pictured, “back-seat driving”, as he put it, from the rear-positioned harpsichord, the emphasis among the central string core was on instinctive interplay: a democratic game of spontaneous musicality that gave anyone with a musical point to make the freedom to do so.

Thus the flirtatious unpredictability that lit up Vivaldi’s Spring Concerto (lead violinist Cecilia Bernardini eloquently zestful as soloist) and Concerto for Oboe (soloist Alexandra Bellamy); the gravitas underpinning two of Handel’s Op 6 Concerti Grossi; and finally Butt’s moment in the sun negotiating the high-speed keyboard wizardry of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 5, the engine room of an ensemble sweetened by the delicate, wood-grained Baroque flute of Katy Bircher.

From the unpretentious intimacy of Prestongrange to the early Gothic magnificence of St Mary’s Church, Haddington, where the BBC SSO, under Matthew Halls, premiered the last of three Prometheus-inspired Lammermuir commissions by Stuart MacRae (***).

Professor John Butt, director of the Dunedin Consort

Professor John Butt, director of the Dunedin Consort

A powerful and muscular work, scored for full orchestra and two soloists (dazzling soprano Jennifer France and magisterial baritone Paul Carey Jones), MacRae’s Prometheus Symphony pulls on an assortment of relevant texts, from Aeschylus to Goethe, and weaves them into a sound world that is fundamentally primitive (at its most basic a raw, often mystical triadic confusion of major and minor constantly bludgeoned by anvil-like attacks on percussion), yet blossoms with an abundance of effusive lyricism – soulful qualities that have become a recent feature in MacRae’s maturing style. Halls inspired a clean, disciplined performance, which rather majored on rigidity, and could have made more of the symphony’s expansive and freely expressive opportunities.

That was also a problem in Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, the inner textures of which lacked drive and definition (why allow the edgy string tremolandos to become so benign?) Needless to say, Vaughan Williams’ luxuriant Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis found a perfect sounding board in the Cathedral-like acoustics.

Pianist Danny Driver, in Friday’s coffee recital at Holy Trinity, Haddington (****), juxtaposed the extreme worlds of Deirdre McKay’s eerily still “time, shining”, a modernist soundscape not without its momentary seizures of high drama; and Beethoven’s madcap Hammerklavier Sonata, the intensity of Driver’s ferocious fugal finale robustly answering the uncompromising expansiveness of the Adagio and exorcising very momentary uncertainties in the earlier movements.

KEN WALTON