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Lammermuir: Hammond & Uttley

Dunbar Parish Church

Tenacity has proved a crucial virtue in the precarious world of music promotion in recent years, and the appearance of pianists Clare Hammond and Richard Uttley at this year’s Lammermuir was another fine example of that.

Festival co-director Hugh Macdonald proposed this re-visiting of the repertoire of the husband and wife duo Ethel Bartlett and Scots son-of-the-manse John Rae Robertson pre-pandemic, and it proved an idea well worth clinging on to. Bartlett and Robertson met as students at the Royal Academy of Music and married in 1921, after his service in World War 1, going on to huge success on both sides of the Atlantic in the inter-war years and beyond, until his death in 1956.

Not only did Bartlett & Robertson create a repertoire of transcriptions for two pianos in addition to playing the established classics, they also commissioned and premiered new music by Martinu, Bax and Britten. Hammond and Uttley steered an expert path between honouring their legacy and doing their own thing with a programme that began with one of the couple’s “greatest hits”, Bach’s soprano cantata, Sheep may safely graze, and concluded with the party-piece lollipop of De Falla’s Spanish Dance from La Vida Breve.

Those are akin to the sort of repertoire of classical chamber pops from last century that have been rediscovered by Elena Urioste and Tom Poster, and it is revealing that young players are doing that – some might say that the chances of the “crossover” populist recordings, and stadium-filling “classical” artists, of our own age are rather less likely to be worthy of the attention of future generations.

The meat of this programme was substantial indeed, and covered composition specifically for two pianos by Mozart, Debussy, Rachmaninov, and Arnold Bax – all with its own story attached, and introduced by the artists as well as in Macdonald’s programme note.

The Bax, from 1928, proved colourful, picturesque and impressionistic, while the Debussy of a decade earlier is the composer at his darkest, its slow central movement clearly coloured by composition in Normandy during WW1. It was bracketed by Mozart’s 1781 D Major Sonata, a perfect introduction to the interplay and exchange of ideas between two stylistically-different performers, and Rachmaninov’s 1901 Suite No.2, perhaps just as worthy of dedication to his therapist as the Second Piano Concerto that followed it. Its second movement Waltz and third movement Romance are the composer at his unbeatable melodic best, and would have justified the considerable expense of bringing the two top-quality Steinways to the Dunbar platform on their own.

Keith Bruce

Portait of Clare Hammond by Philip Gatward