Lammermuir: BBC SSO / Wigglesworth
St Mary’s Church, Haddington
After 12 days of world class music making, a star-studded procession of international stars, everything from opera to symphonic, choral and chamber music, an impressive 82% box office of which 30% were new attendees, regular visitors from as far afield as Washington DC, and an Indian summer to boot, the Lammermuir Festival came to a thundering close with a potently optimistic programme by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra of Tippett and Beethoven.
Again, there wasn’t a seat to be had in the sizeable nave of St Mary’s Church. The palpable buzz was reflective of a communal warmth, friendship and exceptional quality of music-making that has embraced this 14th, and unarguably the best, Lammermuir Festival ever: an event Scotland, East Lothian, and the powers that govern this country ought to be immensely proud of.
Yet, as we reported last week in VoxCarnyx, this is a Festival that Creative Scotland unbelievably withdrew its funding from at the eleventh hour. As you’d expect from Lammermuir’s co-directors James Waters and Hugh Macdonald – two of the most skilled, experienced and globally respected classical music impresarios in the UK – the news was greeted with disbelief and puzzlement, but also a dogged determination to overcome the odds.
In a brief speech before the final concert, Waters acknowledged the goodwill and support that had been forthcoming, stating “a determination to run a campaign to maintain the festival, to find a way of securing the funding of a festival we have grown together.” He even announced proposed dates for 2024.
With that, Festival Patron Steven Osborne took his place at the piano to perform Tippett’s Piano Concerto, a work whose combination of subliminal magic and robust Beethovenian rhetoric perhaps reflected our prevailing thoughts – music’s ability to apply utopian diversions to the grounded reality of everyday life. A metaphor, perhaps, for the incalculable value of such threatened events.
Osborne was magnificent, his tried and tested mastery of Tippett’s elusive language – there’s no better testimony to this than his Hyperion recordings – colouring this performance with a vital luminescence and mind-blowing virtuosity. His interaction with the SSO was as instinctive as it was authoritative, those moments where the piano is encased within a toy box world of ethereal celeste and fluttering woodwind exquisitely enhanced by the spacious acoustics. The preternatural world of Tippett’s opera The Midsummer Marriage, written around the same time, is never far away.
Neither, though, is the inspiration the composer himself declared came from Beethoven. It was there, without doubt, in the tumultuous surges that inhabit and shape the outer movements, but also in the intertwining lyrical threads – every one of them surreally definable as Tippett – that inform the structural flow, especially in the central slow movement.
SSO principal conductor Ryan Wigglesworth supported Osborne’s mindset well, eliciting lustrous empathy from his players. If the slow movement fell short in achieving a genuine tranquillo – Wiggleworth’s direction favoured a more restive lamentation – the rest was a triumph of transcendent rapture.
The concert ended with Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and a performance that didn’t hang about, giving it the necessary vigour and clarity to succeed in such a diffusive environment. There were superlative moments from the orchestra – the brooding basses in the Funeral March, the sky-bound horns in the Scherzo, golden woodwind solos, and the strings meaty and resplendent throughout.
As a whole, Wigglesworth engineered a purposeful and ultimately exhilarating reading. Not every tempo felt rigidly stable – he has a tendency to add spasmodic flicks to his beat that audibly impact on rhythmic discipline – but it was a version of a visionary, revolutionary symphony that celebrated its most profound and affirmative qualities. And, needless to say, Lammermuir’s.