Review: Phantasm & Danny Driver at Lammermuir

First published in the Guardian on 20 September, 2015

Whisper it, but this must be one of the best-kept secrets in the UK classical calendar. The Lammermuir Festival happens in churches and stately homes around East Lothian, the part of Scotland with the softest contours and most hours of sunlight per annum. There’s a quiet class about the whole thing that generates a special kind of listening; for all the dark arts of construing festival ambience, Lammermuir tends to simply programme right and let the music do the talking.

A late-night concert at St Mary’s in Haddington — a riverside church, staunchly gothic and moodily floodlit — featured the viol quartet Phantasm delving into some of the most searching music ever written. JS Bach never finished his epic contrapuntal masterpiece The Art of Fugue: the final passage, in which he enigmatically encrypted his own initials, simply cuts out mid-sentence and nobody quite knows why. The manuscript doesn’t specify instruments and Phantasm made it their own, spinning each line with a sense of lyrical, wide-eyed storytelling that summed up Bach’s love of song and dance as much as the formidable mathematics of his counterpoint. I only wish they hadn’t played an encore: sure, their Purcell Fantasia was gorgeously lissome, but I wanted to leave with Bach’s mystery still hanging in the dark.

Sunlight streamed through the crosshatch windows of Holy Trinity Church the next afternoon, when pianist Danny Driver gave an enthralling account of Ligeti’s first two books of Etudes and Debussy’s first two books of Images. Driver isn’t an overt colourist and occasionally I missed touches of outright metal or flamboyance, but for someone who had never before performed the fearsome Ligeti pieces as a complete set he was astoundingly cool: this was a performance of dauntless clarity, understated wit, graceful vitality.