Crichton Collegiate Church, by Pathhead/Dirleton Kirk
The multifaceted 2023 edition of the Lammermuir Festival – very possibly the most artistically successful in its history, making Creative Scotland’s absence as a supporter all the more absurd – revealed yet another face on its final Sunday. In two of its most architecturally beautiful and acoustically admired venues we heard very different sung music, composed centuries apart, that fitted their original purpose as places of worship.
Roddy Willliams closed his short but highly effective recital at Dirleton Kirk in the afternoon with the Five Mystical Songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams, setting lyrics by metaphysical poet George Herbert, in the composer’s own arrangement for piano (Christopher Glynn) and single strings (the Maxwell Quartet).
Herbert’s guidance to living the Christian life is still part of the liturgy of the church, and the unmistakable voice of the popular baritone sounded wonderful in the closing Antiphon: Let all the world in every corner sing, My God and King!
Less familiar were the settings of English Folk Songs by Vaughan Williams in the singer’s own arrangements for string quartet, which were as crisp as his own immaculate diction. Originally a lockdown project with soprano Mary Bevan and tenor Nicky Spence, Williams took on all the characters in these tales himself with changes of tone and timbre. In a varied selection from the composer’s vast archaeological project, Captain Grant was a geographically appropriate tale of an Edinburgh jail-break, while others dealt with lovers bereft, spurned and slightly soiled.
Preceding the songs and hymns, in the first half the Maxwells and Glynn combined forces for Elgar’s Piano Quintet, perhaps not obvious territory for this quartet but to which they brought their own folk-tinged style, to the music’s great profit. The work is full of changes of mood and tone, the haunted opening giving way to a dance tune that sounds almost Mediterranean, and a spooky carnival ride alternating with a stride across the South Downs in the finale. With a blended sound in the strings that only long acquaintance can bring, and assertive contributions from the pianist, this performance told its tale in what seemed a very swift 40 minutes.
Earlier in the day, at the well-off-the-beaten-track Crichton Collegiate Church (actually in Midlothian), the sequence of secular and sacred was reversed in soprano Nardus Williams’s recital with a Dunedin Consort quintet, led by John Butt from chamber organ and harpsichord.
Following on neatly from the Dunedin’s Out of Her Mouth production in June, featuring three of French composer Elizabeth Jacquet de la Guerre’s Biblical cantatas, this programme included her instrumental music alongside songs and solo cantatas by her female contemporaries and predecessors in Italy.
The convent composers featured in the first half may have had the Saviour and religious life as their subject, but they were clearly not cloistered from worldly desires and Williams brought real passion to her delivery, whether seated or standing. Singing from memory, she brought an expressiveness to these appeals for the bliss of Heaven or an encounter with the Christ-child that contrasted with the wry, more cynical tone of Barbara Strozzi in La vendetta, the song that gave the recital its title.
The lesson-telling of that and Costuma de grandi, the brilliant word-setting of Havete torto and the 12 minute mono-drama Hor che Apollo made the sequence after the interval a superb introduction to Strozzi, but the genius of the programme was the way it presented her work in context, with the Dunedin instrumentalists on top form.
The soprano – now happily a Dunedin stalwart – was the star however, in what was a beautifully nuanced, delightfully ornamented and utterly compelling performance.
Portrait of Nardus Williams by Bertie Watson