Edinburgh is Festival City in August, with the International Festival now running concurrently with the extensive Edinburgh Fringe, the combination guarantees three weeks pulsing with exciting artistic energy, from opera to street jugglers, stand-up comedians to international orchestras and soloists. Sometimes, it’s a wonderful escape just to get away from the bustle of the streets and seek the more meditative.

Old St Paul's © Calum Robertson
Old St Paul's
© Calum Robertson

John Kitchen, City Organist is also director of music at Old St Paul’s Church, nestling between high buildings only a stone’s throw from both the Royal Mile and Waverley Station. A church with a tradition of fine music, it has curated a series of late night short classical contemplative concerts collectively called ‘Hot Chocolate’, all performed by candlelight, a delightful niche festival within the Edinburgh Fringe.

François Couperin wrote his expressive and intense Leçons de Ténèbres, settings of Lamentations of Jeremiah for Holy Week, while he was organist du roi to King Louis XIV. Couperin said he intended to publish nine Leçons but only three survive, the first two performed here by tenor James Hutchinson with Sally Carr’s cello continuo and John Kitchen on organ. The text laments the Siege of Jerusalem applied allegorically to the three days of mourning for Christ between his crucifixion and resurrection, a desperate outpouring of grief for Jesus, abandoned by the disciples and betrayed by Judas.

The Leçons are divided into parts, each preceded by a dreamy plainchant melisma on the Hebrew letters, Hutchinson’s gently pleading tenor blending perfectly with Carr’s decorative softly plangent cello. The latin texts were more direct, Hutchinson sustaining the beautiful flowing laments, Kitchen’s subtly changing chamber registration and Carr’s sonorous cello never overwhelming the voice. Leçons  were interspersed by motets, Respice me in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Usquequo Domino, a setting of verses of Psalm 12. The programme was a long continuous sing for Hutchinson, who sustained an air of intense beauty to the end.

The following night, the church was even more deeply candlelit for a thoughtful intelligent programme of music for clarinet and soprano beginning with Michael Nyman’s brilliant Mannahatta, Calum Robertson’s bass clarinet dancing in an exhilarating angular rhythmic workout while soprano Sally Carr's radiant soprano celebrated the vibrancy of New York with Walt Whitman’s words. Switching to conventional clarinet, Robertson and Carr performed Three Songs by Gordon Jacob, a playful madrigal Of all the Birds that I do Know, the light touch of the clarinet accompanying Carr’s voice in the foreground. Flow my Tears was a haunting and beautiful setting of John Dowland’s text, like hearing two sad songs at once doubling the melancholy. Finally, Ho, Who Comes here? was a lively celebration of Morris Dance, with spiky clarinet and joyful soprano lines.

Sally Carr and Calum Robertson © Rhona Christie
Sally Carr and Calum Robertson
© Rhona Christie

In between, Robertson performed two pieces by James MacMillan: From Galloway, a dreamy folksong based piece using pibroch embellishment, delivered with the lightest of touches; After the Tryst took Macmillan’s Tryst theme and developed it, Robertson’s clarinet expressive and becoming more violent, tempered by John Kitchen’s understated calming piano arpeggios.

The most important left to last, Lori Laitman’s I Never Saw Another Butterfly is the setting of poems written by children in Theresienstadt, a concentration camp showcased to the Red Cross as being rich in cultural life. There were indeed four orchestras, chamber groups and jazz ensembles, but thousands died there or were sent on to Auschwitz. Children’s voices can touch us with their honest directness, and these six poems, written by young teens who died in 1944 are a beautiful and poignant legacy. The mix of clarinet and soprano has a menacing darkness which can turn to warmth in an instant, Robertson and Carr exploiting this with moving sensitivity tackling the vignettes of butterflies, birds, the man with no teeth and the man used to servants in a former life. Moods ranged from deep sorrow, through anger, with some lighter moments of dance, Carr’s voice soaring in defiance at the waste of life. Hans Krása’s opera for children Brundibár was performed numerous times in Theresienstadt, and I was left wondering if the young poets had taken part, especially the doomed little boy in the garden in Franta Bass’s poem.

With a trumpet and organ night, Sirocco Winds, Sospiro Baroque and the Choir of Old St Paul’s performing Stanford’s Bible Songs all in the second week, Hot Chocolate at 10pm provides Festival late night food for the soul.