Lammermuir Festival


St Mary’s Parish Church, Haddington

Keith Bruce

four stars

THE remarkable acoustic of St Mary’s, which listeners will be able to judge for themselves when this concert is broadcast on BBC Radio, never ceases to supply new musical revelations. The programme the BBC Scottish played for the Lammermuir Festival was designed to exploit that to the full.

Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis might almost have been composed for the venue with its tripartite instrumental structure. Scott Dickinson’s viola resonated beautifully in the string quartet, and the second small orchestra was placed much deeper in the chancel of the kirk, twenty feet or more away from conductor Matthew Halls and superbly distinct from the main body of the strings.

Come the performance of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, the horns playing their swan-hymn filled the vaulted space in the finale. This orchestra recently performed the rarely-heard earlier version of the symphony under Thomas Dausgaard, and this was something of a revelatory reading of the more familiar three-movement revision by Halls, with some very brisk tempi indeed, especially at the close of the first movement. He is a very energetic conductor, here working without a baton, with a beat and hand gestures that could not be clearer. The staccato chords that close the work reverberated precisely at the glorious climax of the work.

The main event of the evening, however, was the premiere of Stuart MacRae’s final work in his three-year position as Composer-in-Association at the the festival. The Prometheus Symphony perhaps stretches the definition of “symphony” (as James MacMillan’s choral Fifth did at the Edinburgh Festival), but it is thoroughly true to its Promethean inspiration, setting texts by Aeschylus, Goethe and Elizabeth Barrett Browning for soprano Jennifer France and baritone Paul Carey Jones in what is a very dramatic cantata.

Established Scottish Opera favourite France roamed the performing area with her stratospheric voice, accompanied initially by a trio of fiddles, while the title character remained still, resolute, and ultimately triumphant. With a forge of percussive effects on piano and harp stage right, as well as a touch of Latin tom-toms and a flavour of big band brass, it is a very rich, expressive piece, but one whose structure requires a further listen to appreciate completely.

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