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There's a fine line-up at the Lammermuir Festival this year, with some classy chamber music and vocal ensembles still to come over the next seven days: haste ye to East Lothian if you can. What the four-year-old festival still lacks is a decent venue for orchestras. The opening weekend kicked off with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the newly refurbished Dunbar Parish Church, whose boomy acoustics are yet to be broken in. You could count the several-second reverb in the pregnant pauses of Beethoven's Coriolan Overture, and the sizzling bravado of Beethoven's Fourth Symphony blurred like fireworks in a fog.
But if any orchestra could sound crisp in swimming pool acoustics it's the SCO. Joseph Swensen drew feisty playing in Coriolan and brought a light, shapely touch to Kodaly's Summer Evening: here the space really suited the sultry strings and warm wind solos. Swensen is a master of headline atmosphere if not the detail in between: he couldn't muster enough tension to carry the slow introduction of Beethoven's Fourth and there was no serenity in the symphony's Adagio - here his baton seemed hasty and clunky. But the rambunctious third and fourth movements were full of scintillating, punchy drama.
Strauss's First Horn Concerto made an ideal showcase for Alec Frank-Gemmill, Lammermuir's artist-in-residence and the SCO's star principal horn. This was sparkling, charming playing, and technically pristine to boot. The barnstorming start of the concerto can easily sound pompous but Frank-Gemmill made it playful and adventurous. His knack of keeping phrases spacious then urging them on towards the ends added a sense of cheeky flourish, and he couldn't suppress the odd smile during orchestral sections. Joyful stuff.
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A cheer went up when it was announced French oboist François Leleux will be artist-in-residence of next year's Lammermuir Festival. Leleux makes an unparalleled sound on the instrument and his musical personality is generous and inventive. If he's not as well known in the UK as he is in France and Germany, hopefully Lammermuir's platform should go some way to correcting that.
Yester House made an ideal match, too: Leleux's sound is as plush as the rococo plasterwork. Apparently it was the acoustics of the 18th Century ballroom that convinced Gian Carlo Menotti to buy this Adam père mansion back in the 1970s, and the space is just right for chamber music.
Mozart's Oboe Quartet sounded opulent and shapely, with sturdy backing from the Hebrides Ensemble's strings, a luxurious Adagio and a rustic Rondeau that was more knees-up barn dance than polite ballroom fare. Leleux returned to the stage alone for Britten's Six Metamorphoses after Ovid. Each movement depicts a mythical character and he responded vividly: Niobe's lament was ardent, Bacchus was boozy and belligerent, Arethusa's fountain of love welled up in an immense final note.
After the interval - cream teas on the lawn, no less - John Bevan Baker's Duo made a perfect vehicle for Leleux's rhapsodic playing, from husky tuning note to impassioned tangle and back again. Only Mozart's Quintet in C minor K406 didn't really add up. This was a wind serenade Mozart arranged for string quintet; Leleux played the first violin line and was too dominant in the texture. That's a minor quibble: this was a splendid recital.
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How to do justice to an orchestra in a church acoustic? It is possible, for sure, but the repertoire needs to be right and the playing needs to adjust accordingly. Where the Scottish Chamber Orchestra ricocheted around Dunbar Parish Church on Friday, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra blurred at the edges at St Mary's Haddington the following night.
Glinka's Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila probably wasn't the ideal choice of opener, with its glittering string runs and Martyn Brabbins's flash-fire tempo, but the boisterous atmosphere came across regardless. Britten's Violin Concerto was haunting, though, in a superbly judged performance from Anthony Marwood. Britten wrote this concerto in 1939 during an exile of sorts in North America, and it's a troubled score, full of conflicted, fitful emotion. Marwood captured the nervy tension as well as the longing: his sound was silvery and subtle, never imposing, his cadenza was plaintive and insistent and he intertwined with the orchestra beautifully.
A similar sense of restlessness underpinned Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. Brabbins established anguish from the start, drawing swells of emotion in the opening clarinet theme where many conductors stick to buttoned-up stoicism. The honesty was touching: even radiant moments had a clenched-teeth quality that made them intriguing. The first movement ended abruptly and inconclusively; agitation at the start of the Andante made David Flack's horn solo float all the more gloriously in contrast, and Brabbins accentuated the off-kilter lilt of the Valse so that trouble never seemed far off. Even the sunny finale was shot through with foreboding and an ironic twist.