By Sarah Urwin Jones
“One of the many charms of the East Neuk Festival is the intimacy of the diverse venues it inhabits in this far corner of Fife. But the prettiness counts for little without depth, and it is the continuing thoughtful exploration of the chamber repertoire, by artists such as Alexsandar Madzar, whose afternoon concerts of Bach Partitas thrilled, that marks out the East Neuk.
There’s also an adventurous strand, somewhat in abeyance this year, that counters all that rigorous polish. It ghosted a programme from Richard Egarr and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, loosely based around transcendence, in this year’s new venue, Younger Hall, St Andrews, which aimed to take listeners in a musical elevator up to the Heavens, but kept stalling along the way.
Bach’s Violin Concerto in E was pleasant enough in the hands of soloist Isabelle van Keulen (leader of the Leopold Trio), and the incessant, flowing motifs of John Adams’s Shaker Loops quivered fitfully, like bacteria reproducing in a petri dish. There were moments when it seemed to coalesce: Ives’s Unanswered Question, its offstage brass blasting too intently, and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony both reaching for something greater than the sum of what we know. But it was left to van Keulen to reach the summit with Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending, exquisitely delicate, yet at times lacking the wing power to gain its full height.
Back to the familiar the following evening in lovely Crail Church, where Christian Zacharias’s organic, fluid exposition of the recurring ideas in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in F was echoed in the Leopold Trio’s delicate treatment of Schubert’s eddying String Trio in B flat. The sum combined to dazzling effect in Brahms’s meaty and ferociously intense Piano Quartet in G minor, with its effervescent, Hungarian finale played with unmitigated vim.
Similar commitment, too, from the Elias Quartet the following day in stunning St Monan’s Church. Halting, then robust in Beethoven’s Harp Quartet, it was the raw, half-crazed intensity with which they magnified Mendelssohn’s grief-stricken String Quartet in F minor that endured.”
By Kenneth Walton
Kilrenny Church & St Monan’s Church, Fife ****
While it is unusual for an ensemble to feature at the East Neuk Festival in consecutive years, no-one was going to be disappointed that the exception would be a return visit by the young Elias Quartet. In any case, their focus this time was on Beethoven and Mendelssohn, a far cry from the Britten quartets they impressed with last year.
Over a series of two concerts at the weekend (with an extra one on Sunday morning to meet ticket demand), we heard inspired programmes that paired, respectively, Beethoven’s F minor Op95 and the Op74 “Harp” quartet with Mendelssohn’s teenage Op13 and his ultimate Op80.
The connections were palpable – the fizzy coda of the earlier Beethoven posing as a subliminal link into the earlier Mendelssohn, and in turn Mendelssohn’s retrospective allusions to Beethoven; and the similarly-minded agitations that set both the “Harp” and Mendelssohn’s swan-song quartet vividly alight.
All of that was spelt out in brief verbal introductions by lead violinist Sara Bitlloch, but the connections were sharply articulated in performances that abandoned safety and complete polish in favour of excitement and emotional theatre.
True, there were moments where the sound seemed forcibly exaggerated, but to have tamed the beast would have been to short-change us on music that wrestles with conflicting passions.
The opening of Beethoven’s Op95, for instance, was a glorious and succinct example of that; while at the other end of the spectrum, the agonising harmonic interruptions that punctuate the close of Mendelssohn’s Op80 – composed in the year of his death – brought the Elias’s residence to a dramatic close.
The ensemble has just begun a three-year project to explore all of Beethoven’s quartets – see www.thebeethovenproject.com.
by Kate Molleson
Dazzling French quartet push the limits
In five days of consistently excellent concerts in this coastal corner of Fife, two performers really stood out.
One was probably inevitable: the Quatuor Ebène, a dazzling young French string quartet who made their Scottish debut and proved the talking point of the festival. Their sound is glossy and bright (satisfyingly French) and flawlessly virtuosic. They play with total unity but are endlessly malleable, able to shift direction on an unspoken unanimous whim.
There’s an arrogance about their stage presence; these lads know they’re good. But that seems to goad them to go further, to push the limits of technique and interpretation, and to palpably enjoy doing so. It made for a superb performance of the Debussy quartet, more volatile and sensual than I’ve ever heard. And it made for an astounding account of Beethoven’s Opus 131, a tangled, angular mess of a quartet that the Ebènes tackled with unbridled ferocity.
Sure, they lacked the measured profundity of older quartets, but this was a sincere and forceful reaction to a formidable score. Radio 3 will broadcast that concert in early August, so you’ve a chance to judge for yourselves.
The other performer who stood out for me could hardly be more of a contrast. I’m told that Aleksandar Madzar’s three concerts of Bach Partitas sold the least well of any in the festival. Maybe it was the 4pm time slot, or maybe on paper these programmes lacked the thrill of Christian Zacharias’s late-period Brahms or the Elias Quartet’s Mendelssohn. But the Serbian pianist played Bach with a quiet, introspective vulnerability that was deeply moving to witness. There was nothing dazzling here; even the faster movements were playful rather than showy, while the Sarabandes were still and vulnerable, never sentimental.
The two Elias concerts came with breathless reports of their performances at last year’s festival, and justifiably so. This quartet clearly thinks hard about the music they play. They’ve a strong sense of architecture and pass melodies between them with earnest grace. Maybe they lack the Ebène’s sparkling technique, but their sheer determination becomes an effective part of their performance, especially in repertoire like Mendelssohn’s tortured Quartet in F minor, Opus 80. Over the next few years they are working on a complete Beethoven cycle, and it seems the journey will be very much worth following.
Meanwhile, Zacharias’s impressive residency ranged from solo Beethoven to a talk, rambling and enthusiastic, on Romantic pianism, to Brahms’s G-minor Piano Quartet with the Leopold String Trio. They were a fine match in terms of musical chutzpah, though personally I find violinist Isabelle van Keulen’s brazen approach too blanketing; violist Lawrence Power finds a better balance of gutsy attacks and rich, nuanced lyricism.
Van Keulen also featured in a Friday-night concert with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Saint Andrews, playing Vaughan-Williams’s The Lark Ascending for the first time in her career. Here she did find a finer, quieter touch which conductor Richard Egarr and the SCO cushioned nicely. But as the only orchestral offering of the festival, this strange programme (it also included John Adams, Ives, Bach and Schubert) seemed out of scale and character – proof, I suppose, of just how well the rest of the festival’s programming achieved a subtle cohesion.
Artistic Director Svend Brown says he doesn’t want the festival to grow much in terms of number of concerts; three or four each day is just about right. To me, the breadth of repertoire this year bordered on too narrow (only one concert ventured past the 19th century) so hopefully Brown’s plans to commission new works for future festivals will come to fruition.
In just seven years, however, Brown has honed in on a very workable formula. The village churches around the East Neuk of Fife give concerts an easy intimacy that both audiences and musicians respond to. One of the parish ladies pouring interval teas at Kilrenny Church explained that, as a rule, the sun always shines over the East Neuk of Fife during the festival (and so it did). She also said she would never bother going to a big concert hall again.
By Kenneth Walton
Events like the East Neuk Festival throw up those wonderful mongrel moments where captive artists are tossed together in a single concert and out of the stew comes a mixed dish that is greater than the sum of its parts.
It happened on Saturday evening in Crail Church. For this heady cocktail of Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, the pianistic might of pianist Christian Zacharias combined with three equally potent individuals – violinist Isabelle van Keulen, violist Lawrence Power and cellist Kate Gould – who operate alone as the Leopold String Trio.
The musical sequence played a part in the grafting process. Zacharias opened with a solo performance of Beethoven’s Sonata Op10 No2 that may have looked like a stroll in the park for the stylish pianist, but which possessed a lusty interaction of personable charm and intellectual grit.
Then the Leopold Trio, in the strangely hybrid fragility of Schubert’s B flat String Trio, before all four musicians came together for Brahms’ G minor Piano Quartet and the whirlwind intoxication of Brahms’ A minor piano quartet: a truly great festival moment, crowned by the swashbuckling Gypsy-style finale that had them tearing the guts out of this wonderful earthy music.
A few hours earlier, the tone was more singularly stylised but no less sensational. This was pianist Aleksandar Madzar’s final recital in his East Neuk survey of Bach’s keyboard Partitas, and an approach to Bach that sat perfectly between mathematical precision and expressive freedom. In both performances (the E minor and G major Partitas) Madzar let fine whiffs of fresh air breathe impulsive life into Bach’s outwardly prescriptive assortment of standardised dance forms.
His choice of encore – the simple theme to Bach’s Goldberg Variations – was a whimsical nod to the Festival’s opening concert last Wednesday, in which harpsichordist Richard Egarr performed Bach’s entire 90-minute epic. An example of an in-joke that actually worked.
Friday night was also marked by a contrast in musical formats. On the one hand, St Andrews’ Younger Hall provided the venue for the festival’s only orchestral concert featuring the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, directed by Richard Egarr; while a quick sprint around the block took us to the diminutive All Saints Church, and an atmospheric late-night candlelit presentation by the a cappella Orlando Consort of one of history’s earliest extant polyphonic settings of the Requiem Mass, by the 15th century composer and diplomat Johannes Ockeghem.
The church’s dry acoustic left the all-male ensemble slightly exposed, revealing a lack of pure-bred homogeneity that in its own way enhanced the relative primitivism of Ockeghem’s (and that of his contemporaries represented in the interspersing motets) Early Renaissance prototype.
The SCO programme was a long and winding affair – a slightly indulgent one – that threw together, with mixed results, music by Bach, John Adams, Charles Ives, Schubert and Vaughan Williams. The best of it was van Keulen’s supple and sensuous performance of Vaughan Willliams’ The Lark Ascending, complete with obligato seagulls larking about on the roof.
Such is the seaside charm of the East Neuk.
by Kate Molleson
It’s only seven years old, but this is a festival that knows what it’s about and does it well. Don’t go expecting what they won’t have: the programming is unflinchingly trad (in five days of chamber concerts, there were only three pieces written after 1900), and the festive element is kept understated – just a bit of bunting and an oversized bust of Beethoven moulded out of sand. But the tiny church venues dotted around the East Neuk’s fishing villages are classy in a soft-spoken, east-of-Scotland kind of way. The festival’s ethos suits its landscape nicely.
Evidently, the formula works for musicians as well as audiences, because this year earned a string of strikingly intimate performances. A contingent of keyboard players were the backbone: Richard Egarr, dressed in a T-shirt and wrestling his way through a strangely shambolic, hugely touching harpsichord performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations; Christian Zacharias’s muscular, uncompromising late-period Brahms and Beethoven; and, the most revelatory, Aleksandar Madžar’s tender, vulnerable and deeply lyrical Bach Partitas.
Two excellent young string quartets inevitably attracted comparison. The Elias played Beethoven and Mendelssohn with powerful grit and rough, human edges; the Ebène, from France, played Mozart and Debussy with shimmering, borderline-cocksure brilliance. Their performance of Beethoven’s Op 131 was fascinating: intense and urgent, yet coated with that same blithe sheen. It was their Scottish debut, and arguably the festival’s highlight.
There is still some room for growth. Artistic director Svend Brown talks of developing a literary element, and of commissioning new work, which would be welcome. But the only concert this year that seemed commonplace, and therefore out of place, was the biggest – a meandering Scottish Chamber Orchestra programme of Bach, Adams, Ives, Schubert and Vaughan Williams in St Andrews’ Younger Hall. Clearly for this festival, small is beautiful.
by Garry Fraser
Starting off a music festival with an evening of solo harpsichord music might not be everyone’s idea of the perfect springboard to a successful weekend, but on Wednesday night East Neuk Festival director Svend Brown got it spot on. It was not the first time his plans have worked to perfection and certainly not the last. Brown’s winning decision was emphasised by the quality of performance and the quality of music, a combination of Richard Egarr and JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations that was staggeringly successful and extremely captivating. Crail Parish Church wasn’t packed to capacity as it normally is, but then this form of music might not be everyone’s cup of tea. For the Baroque enthusiast, it must have been heaven.
Such was Egarr’s mesmerising performance, the 90 minutes or so passed in a jiff, with a mini-break half-way through the chance for both performer and audience to catch their breath. However, the flow was hardly broken as Egarr continued with a flourish in the overture, variation 16.
Egarr’s performance apart, it is the genius of Bach that make these 30 variations on a simple theme such an attraction. The variety, both in style and mood, is staggering as is the way the whole work is held together by the constant presence of the original thematic material, which continually surfaces amidst complicated keyboard elaboration. Trills, mordents, lively dance movements, fugues and some magnificent counterpoint are there in abundance and all call for precision-perfect technique and light-fingered dexterity, with hand-crossing and keyboard-switching needing physical as well as mental agility. Egarr’s interpretation was spot on, the use of rubato on occasions well-timed and well-designed.
Then, just when you think Bach has no tricks up his sleeve, he inserts turns to the minor key in variation 25, once famously described as the “black pearl” of the composition and easily the work’s emotional highpoint.
Egarr was quite relaxed in his introduction, but there was nothing relaxed about his performance or his approach to this magnificent work. He proved that one-and-a-half hours of Baroque keyboard music can be a positive delight, even for those whose preferences lie more in music of the classical or romantic genre.
by Garry Fraser
Friday’s East Neuk Festival concert in St Andrews’ Younger Hall was quite a mixture, one only artistic director Svend Brown could come up with. In this he covered nearly every base, but it was the first time I’ve ever seen him having to justify his selection in the programme notes. Whether he was trying to convince himself or the audience is a matter for conjecture.
I’m not convinced the mix of Bach, Schubert, Vaughan Williams with the harsh atonality of John Adams and Charles Ives worked although I concede that programme compilation needs some inventiveness to ensure there is no danger of falling into a rut. I was also not convinced that some aspects of the performance came up to the high standard that has been set by East Neuk concerts over the years.
Isabelle van Keulen’s interpretation of Bach’s E major violin concerto relied heavily on pace, too much so because some of the inner intricacies of the solo part were lost, particularly in the opening movement. The Adagio, with its ground bass, had a much better tempo with the final Allegro Assai mirroring the over-energetic opening.
I thought she was in better form in Vaughan Williams’ Lark Ascending. There was clarity in her bird song phrases and the blend between solo and orchestra was excellent. All the mood and colour that can be generated by this beautiful piece was there, with conductor Richard Egarr’s relaxed direction fitting in with the overall tranquil and temperate feeling this work evokes.
In between the Baroque splendour of Bach and Vaughan Williams’s pastoral relaxation came John Adams’s Shaker Loops and Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, two works that might have made this concert memorable but not necessarily for the right reasons. In Adams’ work, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra took full marks for stamina, with the work’s incessant frenzied and anxious tremolo rarely diminishing. The Ives creation was even more sensational, three orchestral groups with three different opinions…cackling woodwind, a mournful solo trumpet and slow and sustained strings, never changing speed or volume. With these sorts of works, one is not quite sure whether the applause is for the composition or the performance. On Friday night, I would definitely go for the latter.
Although the concert didn’t end with Schubert’s Unfinished, it might easily have been the evening’s crowning glory, the sort of work that brings out the best in the SCO. Although I’m sure they could play this in their sleep, they produced a performance that was as fresh as anything an orchestra discovering this classical gem for the first time could produce.
by Garry Fraser
Throughout the seven years of it existence, chamber music has been the mainstay of the East Neuk Festival with the best music played by the best performers. Saturday’s concert in Crail Church was a typical example, and the reputation of concerts there guarantee a maximum attendance whatever the programme. It’s hard to say what was the main attraction on Saturday – music by Beethoven Schubert and Brahms or the appearance of Christian Zacharias (piano) and the Leopold String Trio. Both had equal appeal.
Having experienced Beethoven piano sonatas in large concert halls, I felt Crail’s more intimate surroundings gave further lustre to Zacharias’ performance of Beethoven’s F major sonata. This was one of clinical precision, a no-nonsense, direct approach that did nothing to undermine the quality of composition, with the final Presto taken almost “attacca”, such was the almost imperceptible break between that and the Allegretto.
Zacharias’ amalgamation with the Leopold for Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor, the first of three such works and written in 1859, led to one of these sublime musical experiences. Sometimes this line-up of instrumentalists demands another violin, but not when it comes to Brahms. This was just fabulous, with Brahms’ sublime harmonies and rich textures flooding the lovely little kirk, the acoustic of which lends itself ideally to this type of music. The brightness of the weather outside was matched by the brightness of performance, especially the final Rondo, with the interplay between all four musicians second to none.
In between the Beethoven and the Brahms, the Leopold Trio of Isabelle van Keulen (violin), Lawrence Power (viola) and Kate Gould (cello) had supplied a simple but extremely effective Schubert trio, perhaps lacking the complexities of Brahms or the imagination of the Beethoven but still fetching in its own right. It underlined what was said in the programme notes that Schubert was writing music that is as rewarding to play as it is to hear.
By Tim Cornwell
The East Neuk Festival drew capacity audiences for 75 per cent of its shows this weekend in its seventh and most successful year, and volunteers helped create a giant starfish on Elie beach.
Chairman Donald McDonald and artistic director Svend Brown yesterday announced a new fundraising driver, Take us to Ten, to raise an endowment fund over the next three years to carry the festival forward. Brown called it a “rich, intense, thoughtful and deeply valuable cultural event”.
In a measure of the festival’s prestige, four concerts from the event will be broadcast on Radio 3’s lunchtime concert slots in August.