East Neuk Festival – East Neuk, Fife, Fri 27 Jun–Sun 6 Jul 2014
- David Kettle
- 10 July 2014
The Gould Piano Trio, Belcea Quartet and Llyr Williams perform against an idyllic backdrop
You can just about see the East Neuk of Fife across the water from the Edinburgh coast, but it’s quite a different world – all winding country lanes, quaint fishing villages and ancient churches. It’s also home to one of Scotland’s annual musical gems in the form of the East Neuk Festival. Well, maybe ‘musical’ no longer tells quite the whole story. Its programme this year – the festival’s tenth anniversary – also took in plenty of visual art (including distinctive designs by festival illustrator and local artist Hilke MacIntyre), family workshops and a wealth of literature events (Richard Holloway, Sally Magnusson, Robert MacFarlane and more).
So as the festival moves into its second decade, it’s stretching its wings – an opening jazz weekend was another highlight this year. But classical music remains at its heart, and with its appreciative audiences and – let’s face it – pretty idyllic setting, East Neuk is able to pull in some impressively prominent artists. This year’s flagship classical event was an all-Schubert day in Crail Church, which pulled together a glowing roster of performers – even if four concerts of the same composer’s music maybe felt a bit like too much of a good thing.
The Gould Piano Trio kicked things off with a carefully considered account of the E flat Piano Trio, D929, but one that lacked nothing in power or spontaneity – pianist Benjamin Frith, in particular, erupted in sudden bursts of volcanic energy but could equally subside into limpid introspection. There was something spectral about their hushed, scurrying scherzo, and remarkably tight ensemble in the robust finale.
Welsh pianist Llyr Williams, who followed, plays and behaves as if he’s on another planet entirely, sliding gracefully onto the stage and beaming with naïve joy at the audience, or staring straight at you as he delivers a defiant final chord. His Impromptus, D935, were – as is much of his playing – sometimes wilfully contrary, as if he was intent on flying in the face of more traditional interpretations. But you left realising it all came from an entirely fresh perspective on the music – he discovered little scraps of melody you’d never heard before, tied sections together in novel ways, charted ideas as they developed and returned with expert precision.
The Belcea Quartet are regularly held up as one of the finest young string quartets around, and it’s hard to imagine finer quartet playing than in their account of Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet, D804 – extraordinarily detailed, subtly nuanced, and responsive to each of the foursome’s contributions. It came as quite a surprise, then, to hear the strangely swelling, white-out voice of Swedish soprano Malin Christensson in a selection of Schubert songs. But by the end of her set – and a touching encore of ‘An die Musik’ – she’d found a subtler, more floating sound for Schubert’s bittersweet creations, with Llyr Williams returning as a responsive accompanist (and mouthing the words of the songs he clearly knew inside out).
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra gave an astonishing concert the previous evening in the unusual setting of Cambo House’s transformed potato barn (don’t worry, it sounded great), contrasting the rugged evocations of James MacMillan’s tempestuous Í (A Meditation on Iona) with the broad sweep of Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, with young conductor Clemens Schuldt providing big sounds and grandiose visions. Most memorable, though, was … and bells remembered … by Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, a gentle clanging of bell-like sounds from vibraphone, bells, glockenspiel and other percussion, situated behind the listeners, which magically merged with quiet birdsong from outside the barn and the gentle patter of rain on the roof. Adams has been commissioned to write an outdoor work for massed horns for next year’s East Neuk Festival – that and a new retreat / academy for exceptional young players make it something worth planning for already.