Lammermuir Festival reviews: Navarra String Quartet | BBC SSO & Josha Ellicott

A sprightly BBC SSO under the baton of Peter Whelan combined brilliantly with a nuanced performance from Joshua Ellicott in Britten’s delicious Nocturne for tenor and orchestra, writes Ken Walton

Joshua Ellicott & the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra PIC: Robin Mitchell
Joshua Ellicott & the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra PIC: Robin Mitchell

BBC SSO, St Mary’s Church, Haddington ****

Navarra Quartet, Dunbar Parish Church ***

Former SCO bassoonist Peter Whelan’s visibility as a conductor has accelerated over the pandemic months, and we’re all the better for it. On Saturday at the Lammermuir Festival he guided the BBC SSO through a programme framed by classical symphonic repertoire, with Britten’s delicious Nocturne for tenor and orchestra as centrepiece.

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    Whelan’s feel for how an orchestra gives its best – a firm hand on setting the pace; a looser hold on how expressive details pan out – was a winner. Haydn’s Symphony No 35, sprightly and light-fingered on the surface but energised by a sparkling emphasis on its innermost virtuosity, assured a warm and freshly-conceived opener, right down to the perfunctory eccentricity of its final cadence.

    Mozart’s Symphony No 40, the concert finale, offered the perfect counterweight, its familiarity offset by frequent spontaneous action on Whelan’s part – a sudden gesture here to soften the strings, another elsewhere to highlight a hemiola. Never a dull moment.

    Focus in the Nocturne fell on tenor Joshua Ellicott, the unspoilt sheen of his delivery capturing the shadowy essence, but also the ecstasy and humour, of Britten’s settings of verses by Shelley and Keats among others. Perfect for the opulent church acoustics.

    A few hours earlier, in Dunbar, the Navarra Quartet put a highly personalised spin on Mozart and Dvorak. That’s a dangerous game, especially when, in Mozart’s E Flat Quartet K428, a blatant overthinking in the interpretation led to instances of disfigurement, moments where the underlying pulse was uncomfortably obscured, or where extravagant expressive devices verged on ugliness.

    Dvorak’s “American” String Quintet (with the SSO’s Scott Dickinson as extra viola) proved more resilient, while Ivan Moseley’s time-travelling Ah Robin and an wonderfully oddball Gesualdo motet transcription as encore was welcome respite to the weirdness of the Mozart.

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