A Musical Journey is, in effect, a bonsai version of the Lammermuir Festival: beautiful music, beautiful places and, on this particular occasion, beautiful weather. There were three concerts (one in each of East Lothian's most picturesque and acoustically blessed churches) and the day consisted of: journeys between venues through some of Scotland's most spectacular deciduous and harvest scenery; string quartet, harp and soprano timbres; programming which made sense both discretely and across the day featuring, Haydn, Beethoven, Britten and Menotti. Themes seeming to emerge included: the quotation or emulation of folk music; the setting of poetry (Burns) and text (Menotti); the development of Beethoven's musical language and form, from his Op 18, through Op 59 to Op 132; composers coping with age and illness; recovering from illness or not; resistance to, or acceptance of mortality – death as the end of life- or as part of it. This sounds monumentally morbid but the point is that the composers were writing and not simply laying down their pens, or themselves. And we continue to venture out to live performances of their music.

Navarra Quartet © Robin Mitchell
Navarra Quartet
© Robin Mitchell

That said, there was a certain amount of tristesse in the Navarra Quartet's opening item, Haydn's String Quartet in D minor op 103. His health failing, Haydn had sufficient energy to complete only the two central movements and it felt significant that the typically more energetic outer movements are missing. Although Haydn has been gone for 202 years, the idea of his awareness of the end must have passed through some minds during this elegant and assured performance. The Navarra Quartet: Magnus Johnston (violin), Marije Ploemacher (violin), Simone van der Giessen (viola) and Nathaniel Boyd (cello) featured in 2010's Musical Journey – through Mozart quartets - and looked delighted to be participating in this venture again.

The central item featured soprano, Libby Crabtree, accompanied on the harp by 19-year old Emily Hoile. Britten's A Birthday Hansel, might have any etymologist reaching for their dictionary or browsers. The origin appears to be the Old English 'handselen' meaning giving into a person's hands. What was being given was a birthday tribute to the Queen Mother for her 75th birthday. Ironically, at this point the 62-year old Britten, weakened by heart disease and stroke, was confining himself to small-scale projects such as this.The cycle sets seven poems by Burns, each flowing into the next, by way of inventive transition passages for harp. I found myself becoming increasingly intrigued by these transitions and how quickly and skilfully the mood and language changed. The melodies – the composer's own, as opposed to the traditional ones chosen by Burns – enjoyed Britten's trademark tangential harmonic treatment. This was a fine performance, in which one would never have guessed that Libby Crabtree had stepped in at short notice. The musically mature handling of the accompaniment by this young harpist was impressive, particularly during the aforementioned transition passages. The impression was that of a seasoned musician placing every note skilfully and musically, with an unhurried authority.

String Quartet in F Op 18 No 1 by a young Beethoven felt like the perfect counter to Haydn's last quartet. Although part of his first foray into this medium, it was not actually the first to be composed but was considered a better opener. Its confident, outgoing nature was well conveyed by the Navarra Quartet. The sepulchral Adagio affetuouso ed appassionato based, according to Beethoven's friend Amenda on the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet, was played with a dark and intense tenderness. Like many of his works it underwent much revision and Beethoven commented to a friend, “only now have I learned to write quartets.” Nearing the end of his twenties at the time – probably a few years older than the members of the excellent quartet playing his work on this day – Beethoven could have had little notion of how far he would take this medium. The epic nature of this journey would become clear as our day progressed.