East Neuk Festival finishes with flourish of French horns

American composer John Luther Adams created a French horn work for the event
American composer John Luther Adams created a French horn work for the event
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The final weekend of this year’s East Neuk Festival was as revelatory as it was conclusive – conclusive in the sense that it brought to a close the Time Travellers sub-theme that took root earlier last week in violinist Hugo Ticciati’s improvisations around Bach, Rehnqvist, Vivaldi and Piazzolla; and revelatory in the way that Saturday morning’s final play on music and time (a kind of “Bach to the Future”…) brought to our attention one of the most exciting viola players on the world circuit today.

He is Ukranian-born Maxim Rysanov, who teamed up on Saturday morning in Crail Church with Russian violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky in a duo programme, Time Travellers 5 (* * * *), that was infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.

The opening performance of Mozart’s Duo No 1 in G, K423 was a triumph of creative duality: on the one hand borne of a purposeful single-mindedness between both players that ignited a fiery synergy; but on the other, one that fed off the forceful singularity of their respective personalities to create a delicate sense of danger. Just enough of an edge to make this the compelling, edge-of-the-seat experience it was.

It set the scene for the “time travelling” component of the programme, a sequence of performances that alternated Bach’s two-part Inventions with several of Bartok’s String Duos. The juxtaposition was magical and mind-blowing, the intellectual rigour of Bach’s contrapuntal concentrates set mercilessly free by the pugnacious dissonance and side-swerving rhythms of Bartok. Such was the spontaneity and impishness of the presentation that elements of cross fertilisation inevitable took root.

And there was a devilishness, too, in the pair’s closing item, Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen’s virtuoso reworking of a Handel Passacaglia. It was brilliantly played, Sitkovetsky and Rysalov both completely on fire as they imbued this Paganini-esque showpiece with split-second timing, quirky spontaneity, and raw, rustic humour.

This was viola player’s second appearance of the weekend. On Friday night, Rysalov and pianist Ashley Wass took the first half of a programme that featured the Brentano Quartet (* * *) alone after the interval, the common factor being a link to Schubert. It was strangely conceived, the concoction of Schubert’s hybrid Arpeggione Sonata, Leonid Desyatnikov’s Wie Der Alte Leiermann (a somewhat unfulfilling and underdeveloped attempt a variations on the final song from Schubert’s Die Winterreise) and a similarly uninvigorating new work, Erlkönig by Sergei Akhonov, saved only by the enriching quality of the performances.

There was much to savour in the Brentano’s feverish performance of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, especially in the later movements where initial uneasiness in intonation and lack of centrifugal force in the ensemble gave way to a more substantial musicality and purpose.

The Calidore Quartet (* * * *)), in their Saturday afternoon programme, were a more assured presence, firstly in their colourful, multi-grained performance of Schubert’s single-movement Quartettsatz, then in Osvaldo Golijov’s plaintive Tenebrae, with its ephemeral addition of soprano (Mhairi Lawson) and liquidly lyrical clarinet (Maximiliano Martin), and more especially in Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, Martin’s playful rapport with the quartet unleashing novelty and surprise.

Saturday evening’s spotlight was on the Dunedin Consort (* * * *)), performing Bach and Handel in the unlikely setting of Cambo Barn, against an even more unlikely backdrop of stacked potato crates. After director John Butt’s hilarious explanation of the non-story of Bach’s secular Hunt Cantata, the performance, prominently underpinned by spectacular natural horn playing, and after a slightly restive start, was a classic Dunedin presentation, the polished incision and expressive fluidity of the period band illuminating the fiery narrative of soloists Mhairi Lawson, Daniela Lehner, Nicholas Mulroy and the stentorian David Shipley.

The all-Handel second half, in which the famous Water Music, Suite No 1 was interspersed with operatic arias by the four singers, was a knockout. Butt found subtle colourings in the suite you wouldn’t have imagined, the whole variety-style presentation peppered by the thrilling dexterity of the vocal performances.

For Sunday’s finale, ENF repeated its major success of two years ago by commissioning – jointly with London’s South Bank – another major outdoor piece from American composer John Luther Adams. For Across the Distance (* * * *)), Cambo Estate’s walled gardens became a theatre space for 32 French horn players – professionals, amateurs and local youngsters – whose individual mobile arpeggios fused like a sweet cacophony of fanfares. It was a magical experience for the scattered audience to experience the golden resonance of the shifting timbres colliding and splintering like some ghostly homage to Wagner. Even better, the weather defied predictions, allowing the whole event – which included a specially-written Cambo Mambo by Richard Michael and Luther Adams’s Drums of Winter – to unfold with ritualistic mystique and finally dissipate into the humid Fife air.