Lammermuir: Opening Concerts

St Mary’s Church, Haddington / Gladsmuir Parish Church

The opening weekend of this year’s Lammermuir Festival toyed with history. We had a Richard Strauss opera, written in 1938 but rarely seen on the world’s stages, that was now breathing Scottish air for the very first time. Scottish Opera delivered that opportunity in a powerfully revealing concert staging. Why has it become a museum piece?

And while Mozart’s string quintets are performed often enough on modern instruments to modern ears, hearing them on period instruments, with all the fragile idiosyncrasies that entails, was a time-travelling ear-opening courtesy of the uniquely talented string ensemble, Spunicunifait. 

As for the Marian Consort, one of many excellent UK a cappella vocal ensembles focussed on fine-tuning our understanding of early sacred music, they were instrumental, so to speak, in articulating the paradoxical highs and lows of the fortunes besetting Haddington’s medieval St Mary’s Church during the early half of the 16th century.

Strauss’ Daphne, the Festival’s opening evening spectacular in St Mary’s, was a revelation. It has its weaknesses, not least a rather tepid storyline by librettist Joseph Gregor – drawn loosely from Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Euripides’ The Bacchae – that somehow passed muster with the composer. 

In this concert staging, director Emma Jenkins aimed to give it new life, thoughtfully transferring the original “bucolic tragedy” concept to a shadowy 1930s Weimar nightclub and the clandestine activities of the anti-Nazi White Rose movement. It was challenging, if strangely inoffensive, neither stealing the show nor threatening Strauss’ red hot score. 

The focus was firmly on the latter, sung by a cast that knew its worth and driven to the most thrilling Straussian heights by a turbo-charged Scottish Opera Orchestra, its uninterrupted musical narrative the very nerve centre of the piece. Placed behind the singers, superbly nurtured by conductor Stuart Stratford within the expansive church acoustics, the impact was all-embracing, from the sweet-scented pastoralism of the opening to the surreal string effects that etherealise the closing transformation music.

Soprano Hye-Youn Lee stole the vocal show as Daphne, a performance as steely and rapturous as it was affectionate and vulnerable. Australian tenor Brad Cooper addressed the role of Apollo as a pugnacious SS official, his manic animation sharpening the contrast with fellow tenor Shengzhi Ren’s penetratingly naive Leukippos. Recast as nightclub owners, Daphne’s father and mother – Dingle Yandell and Claire Barnett-Jones respectively – appeared like Cabaret side-show equivalents of Le Mis’s Thénardiers. 

Every performance, including a snappy supporting cast, served the performance well, and its worthy ambition to prove what an inspired piece of music this forgotten opera actually is.

The genius of Mozart’s six string quintets has never been in doubt, the consequence of the extra viola – which the composer himself would have played – opening up vistas for harmonic density, contrapuntal complexity and expanded musical conversation. 

In the second of their programmes exploring all six, Spunicunifait’s exclusive interest – they formed purely to celebrate these quintets – was borne out in performances that not only crackled with instinctive interaction, but treated us to the more visceral sound world Mozart’s audiences would have experienced.

That had its issues. Gut strings hate the heat, and Saturday in Gladsmuir Church was exceedingly hot and humid. Tuning between movements extended the concert – recorded for BBC Radio 3 – by a good 20 minutes, not to mention a mid-performance string break that required a quick change by one violist and an impromptu lecture on the perils of period instrument performance by the other (the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s’s new principal viola, Max Mandel).

In many ways the vulnerability of these instruments, and the level of player concentration required to make them speak truly and expressively, added immeasurably to the excitement of the event. A whispered fragility cast an air of suspense around the opening bars of the Quintet No 2 (Mozart’s arrangement of his own C minor Wind Serenade), a performance further enriched by its raw dynamism. The other works were originals: the late String Quintet No 6 in E flat, full of harmonic surprises, boisterous interplay and a golden Andante; the earlier No 3 in C unmistakably operatic through the playful jostling of its instrumentally-conceived dramatis personae. A playing style that took time to acclimatise to was always a joy to ingest, something of a challenge for 20th century ears, but always invigorating.

As for the ensemble’s curious name, Spunicunifait is a made-up word, a conflation of a nonsense phrase penned by Mozart in one of his often racy letters to his cousin “Basle”. 

Nothing was made up in the Marian Consort’s two Saturday events back in St Mary’s. These were based on facts surrounding a stormy few decades in which the Haddington church witnessed the burgeoning of musical excellence – it had its own song school – and the physically devastating impact of invading forces and the Reformation. 

The first Marian appearance was effectively a supporting role, providing music that gave context to a lecture-tour of the church – A Glory of the Middle Ages – by Edinburgh University’s Dr Lizzie Swarbrick, a foremost authority on medieval art and architecture. While much of what she told us about the likely richness of fabric, decoration and spiritual icons existing then within St Mary’s had to be imagined, the music examples by Rory McCleery’s first-rate ensemble was an immediate and exhilarating presence. Motets by Christopher Tye and Adrian Willaert combined with ritualistic chants, performed in a progression of strategic positions within the building. 

It also acted as an intoxicating taster to the more formal concert that evening, a sequence of 15th century music sourced from the Dunkeld part books housed in Edinburgh University, some of it anonymous, some of penned by key continental figures, reflective of 16th century Scotland’s independent openness to the sophisticated fashions of mainland Europe, something the SNP would no doubt approve of. 

The anonymous Missa Felix namque echoed such inspirational circumspection, acting as the programme’s spinal cord and exemplified in a performance that sourced spiritual depth from its outward naivety. That said, the high points were undoubtedly the surrounding set pieces: a melancholic Pater Noster by Pierre Certon, the florid intensity of Josquin’s Benedicta es caelorum Regina, and the gloriously rich harmonies of an anonymous O Maria stans sub cruce.

The supreme purity of the singing, its immediate contextual relevance, and periodic commentary from Swarbrick, struck a resounding consonance against a historically dissonant background.

Ken Walton