THE Lammermuir Festival has, since 2010, been presenting an excitingly diverse, annual programme of classical music concerts in carefully selected venues throughout East Lothian. The festival returned at full strength this year (albeit with Covid protocols firmly in place), following a pandemic-imposed hiatus in 2020.

The 2021 festival ends tonight in the beautiful St Mary’s Parish Church, Haddington, with a concert of music from Renaissance Portugal by the acclaimed Marian Consort.

It was in this historic church (which has borne witness to so much of Scotland’s tempestuous religious history) that the superb, Edinburgh-based Dunedin Consort presented a programme of secular music by Monteverdi and his contemporaries. Sadly, just four days before Wednesday evening’s concert, it was announced that Nicholas Mulroy, the celebrated tenor (and director of this Italian baroque recital), had to withdraw. Fortunately, Christopher Bowen, an excellent tenor with an established passion for baroque music, was available to step into the breach.

Playing to a large audience, seated along the considerable length of St Mary’s (the longest church building in Scotland), the Consort played a programme comprised primarily of Monteverdi’s madrigals. To these glorious songs were added works by Dario Castello, Barbara Strozzi and Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger.

The National: Monteverdi 450

Monteverdi (above) wrote no fewer than eight books of madrigals, creating one of the great bodies of work in the secular song of the early-baroque. The opening song of the concert Altri canti d’Amor (Let others sing of Cupid), from the final book, set the tone for the evening.

The great composer considered himself to be putting his music at the service of poetry. In this piece the music (played on two violins, two theorbos and a harpsichord) and song (sung by six singers of the Consort) reflect perfectly the lyric’s sudden shift between subjects. The song speaks, first, of the “sweet charms” and “sighing kisses” of Cupid, before, suddenly, throwing them aside in emphatic preference for Mars, god of war. In a kind of musical onomatopoeia, Monteverdi’s subtle, yet dynamic music turns, in a moment, from a gorgeous poignancy to an invigorating declaration, announced by the sudden, vocal attack of the fabulous bass baritone Matthew Brook.

Throughout the concert, the reverberating depth of Brook’s voice complements and contrasts wonderfully with the magnificent singing of mezzo-soprano Jessica Gillingwater, sopranos Hilary Cronin and Julia Doyle, and tenors Bowen and Matthew Long. The passionate commitment of the songs demands great dexterity, both of singers and musicians, and the Dunedin Consort has that virtuosic agility in spades.

Strength of emotion, and, indeed, radical shifts between contrasting feelings, are quintessential to Monteverdi’s madrigals. In the love song Ahi! Come a un vago sol (Alas, as if toward a graceful, lovely sun), human voices soar to the Church rafters and, indeed, confront the audience with a beautiful, emotional force that, more than 400 years on, Phil Spector might have called a “wall of sound”.

The concert reflects the tremendous musical diversity of the Italian early-baroque period, and of Monteverdi’s madrigals in particular. In the exquisite a capella song Paign’e sospira (She weeps and sighs) we are blessed to experience not only the extraordinary emotional depth of the composer’s music, but also the exceptional warmth of the acoustic in the almost 700-year-old church.

That sympathetic acoustic also embraces Kapsberger’s splendid Toccata No. 1, which baroque instrumentalist Matthew Nisbet plays with great skill and feeling. His colleagues, violinists Kati Debretzeni and Huw Daniel, theorbo player Eric Thomas and harpsichordist Stephen Farr excel universally in a concert that expresses volubly the excellence of both the Lammermuir Festival and the Dunedin Consort.

For details of future concerts by the Dunedin Consort, visit: