From the opening paired notes, through the gently swelling textures of Sibelius' Rakastava, it was clear what a happy marriage between the SCO strings and the acoustic of St Mary's Parish Church, Haddington would be. Minus the text from Elias Lönnrot's compilation of Finnish poetry, the Kanteletar, amorous intimations in this 1911 version of the composer's original 1894 composition for tenor, male chorus and strings would be down to the tenderness of the playing. Ben Gernon and the SCO nailed this. In “The Lover”, the first of three movements, Gernon's gently curving beat was mirrored in lovely phrasing and finely balanced harmonies. “The path of the lover” prompted a smaller, more precise beat to control more animated music. Pizzicato, tremolando and con sordino (mute) all contributed to a light and vivid texture.

Ben Gernon © Hannah Taylor
Ben Gernon
© Hannah Taylor

The closing “Goodnight - Farewell” featured some lovely harmonies including a bluesy rising appoggiatura cello figure and a moment of almost Hungarian modal harmony. This was a fine performance which prompted me to think that anyone inclined to suspect that music for strings alone might be monochromatic should hear this work, especially in this fine acoustic which boasts blend and separation of which hi-fi enthusiasts can only dream.

Co-Artistic Director of this sixth Lammermuir Festival, James Waters, had introduced this Opening Concert, mentioning how lucky the festival was to featured the Michelangelo Quartet, all of whose members are major international soloists. Two of these members, violinist Mihaela Martin and violist Nobuko Imai, joined the orchestra in Mozart's 1779 Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major K364.

Several things were very striking in the opening Allegro maestoso: that the soloists' shared quartet experience had wrought great musical affinity; that Gernon had been able quickly to tune into this and to communicate this in orchestral phrase endings and re-entries; that this was a performance full of personality. There is much pointless squabble on the Internet about whether musicians should simply channel the music or take an active part in its shaping. This was Mozart, not minimalism or plainsong and one has to be present – to be a presence. This was more the case here than I can recall seeing in this work. 

Heart-winning duo phrasing continued in the central Andante, especially in the cadenza where Martin and Imai beautifully conveyed the concerto form's central paradox: simultaneous communication of effortlessness and struggle. The presence of SCO horns was also notable in this movement, both for delicate contribution to orchestral texture and for an amazingly long and quietly steady pedal note. The closing Presto was a great tonic after the Andante's emotional intensity. In addition to the soloists exuding happy authority, this finale offered SCO woodwinds a chance to shine in this joyous gallop.

Having glanced down at my programme I was quite startled by the volume of the opening chords of Beethoven's Symphony no. 3 in E flat major, “Erioca”. The colour of E flat felt familiar from the Mozart but a new ferocity was in the air; the strings were digging into the many enlivening syncopations. This is not to say that it was all about the noise level; detailed control of dynamics informed the entire symphony, especially the many sudden descents after dramatic climaxes. Gernon at times appeared to be employing an upward beat for traditional downbeats which (and no pun intended) felt upliftingly encouraging as opposed to, say, laying down the law.

The gravitas of the Marcia funebre – Adagio assai, in the suitably dark key of C minor was gripping right from the opening when two growling double basses underpinned the solemn proceedings leading up to oboist Robin Williams' fine delivery of the theme. The SCO's control of this movement, following the ebullience of the Allegro con brio was impressive, particularly in the fugal passage, which felt imbued with the pathos of dignity in the face of difficult times.

The nimble, yet determined Allegro vivace was invigorating, especially the wonderful horns hunting calls, the very nifty double basses and the canon-fire timpani.

The fine St Mary's acoustic highlighted the stark contrasts in the closing Allegro molto from the fierce opening through the pantomime pizzicato which follows, to the suspenseful string cadences. There was more fugal drama to be enjoyed in this closing theme and variations. The liveliness of the theme became fully apparent when the double basses joined the contrapuntal fray. Bassists Nikita Naumov and Adrian Bornet were later prompted to tremolo by Gernon in a joyous charade of double bass action. The thunderous closing bars confirmed the heroic nature of this work and of its performance here.