THE East Neuk Festival’s search for a suitably big and definitive venue may be over. The likely contender is a vast potato barn on the Erskine family’s Cambo Estate.
Getting there didn’t exactly require us, as Wilfred Owen would have put it, to “curse through sludge”. But the traipse through sodden country lanes and Friday’s unpredictable downpours certainly called for sturdy footwear and better organised access.
Potato-free at this time of year, the barn had been transformed into a makeshift acoustically sonorous concert hall, ready for two back-to-back programmes that played, with atmospheric lighting and projected images, to its stark theatrical potential.
The first of these was sheer magic – an uninterrupted sequence of music on the theme Fire and Water, played like an antiphonal spat between the alternating brass and strings of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (*****). A full-size curtain bearing images of war dropped to reveal Arvo Pärt’s resplendent Arbos and a projected backdrop of flames illuminating the golden brass music like a veritable Valhalla. Shostakovich’s harrowing Chamber Symphony, inspired by Dresden’s wartime devastation, shifted focus onto the dense strings.
Then Pärt’s tintinnabular Fratres and James MacMillan’s heavy-pressure brass and percussion extravaganza They saw that the stone had been rolled away, before signing off with the melting calm of Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
The later programme, featuring Paul Hillier’s ambulant Theatre of Voices (***), was for the most part a moving, seamless sequence of plainsong, mainly by the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen. Although exquisitely sung, and exotically underscored by Andrew Lawrence-King on harp, it was too long, and the barn ultimately too cold.
Among the weekend’s more traditional concerts, the Leipzig String Quartet’s coupling of Mendelssohn and Beethoven (**) in Cellardyke was governed by cool proficiency, verging on the dull. The slick sense of freedom that whisked Mendelssohn’s Op 44 No 2 along wasn’t quite enough to convey its inner spirit, nor did Beethoven’s Op 127 Quartet seem exhausted of its curmudgeonly potential. The most magnetic playing came from a simple Bach chorale encore.
Elsewhere, other factions of the SCO were in on the action – in Sunday’s sparkling wind recital (****) of Haydn, Stravinsky’s energy-packed Octet (directed by James Lowe) and a Mozart Serenade (K375) that ended with a dangerously helter-skelter finale; and in last night’s festival finale (****) with Alexander Janiczek directing Mendelssohn’s effervescent Octet, rather overbearingly at the expense of his string-playing colleagues, and more driven here by attitude than refinement.
What came before that, though, was altogether breathtaking – resident pianist Llyr Williams’ first half string of Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, prefaced by the wholesome Prelude & Fugue in E minor. These were absorbing to the last, packed with immaculately considered poeticism, but unleashed with lightning sparks of spontaneity.
Williams’ Beethoven recital on Saturday (****), encompassing the last three piano sonatas, conveyed the same intellectual intensity, but didn’t always root out the soul of the melodic line.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North