EAST Neuk provides the next stop in the summer-long chain of festivals with its own special brand of entertainment, this year including a concert in a potato barn.
It’s that time of year when a critic’s life is spent hopping madly from one festival to the next. It never used to be like this. Not so many years ago, there was the St Magnus Festival in Orkney – where I’m currently snatching a few precious moments between wall-to-wall events to write this column – followed by the brief waft of Mendelssohn on Mull, then the welcome long summer break to recharge before the cultural storm that is the Edinburgh International Festival.
But nowadays the action never ceases. In a summer-long chain of successive festivals, sons of St Magnus have sprung up everywhere, to a point beyond even the Edinburgh Festival in late September, when the newest new kid on the block, East Lothian’s Lammermuir Festival, like all the others, plays to local strengths in terms of quirky locations and makeshift venues, creating its own distinctive flavour with programming that is ambitious but realistic, tasteful and cohesive.
But more on Lammermuir nearer the time, because the next festival hop is to Fife and the well-established East Neuk Festival, now amazingly in its eighth year and already into day two of a five-day programme that might best be described as comfortably refreshing.
For here, the emphasis is on a musical programme that plays safe and sound, with the odd calculated challenge – smatterings of Shostakovich, Stravinsky, MacMillan and Pärt – giving zest to a core diet of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Schubert, even the cosy familiarity of Bach and Dowland.
So what is it about this year’s East Neuk programme that should get you off your backsides to head for the coastal towns of Fife? Well, it’s the artists and the places they perform in that give it quality and a touch of the unexpected. Take tomorrow night’s combination of concerts in the potato barn at Cambo House, a venue glorified by its raised, isolated position on the coastline just north of Crail.
With potato storage out of season, the stage is set to accommodate a joint early evening concert by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Strings, under Alexander Janiczek, and the SCO Brass, conducted by James Lowe, and music ranging from Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony and James MacMillan’s short fanfare for brass and percussion, They saw that the stone had been rolled away, to the hushed familiarity of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
Later in the evening, Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices are joined by the harpist Andrew Lawrence-King in a specially commissioned late-night sequence of music by the extraordinary medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen. “It’s all about creating an atmosphere that suits this uniquely quirky corner of Fife, and this is the venue we’ve been seeking out for quite some time”, claims the Festival brochure. Elsewhere, it’s very much business as we’ve come to expect it, with familiar faces returning to tried-and-tested venues. Among them is the interesting Welsh pianist Llyr Williams, who focuses his channelled intellectualism on Beethoven and Liszt. These are symbolic choices, given the highly individual Beethoven sonata cycle he performed last year at Greyfriars Kirk during the Edinburgh International Festival (which last month won him South Bank Sky Arts Award), and as a taster to his forthcoming Liszt performances at this year’s official Edinburgh Festival.
If his Crail Parish Church performance on Saturday evening of Beethoven’s final trilogy of sonatas is but a microcosm of the bigger Beethoven picture, it is nonetheless a formidable one. “These were written almost as one work,” Williams explains. “And playing all three [Op 109, 110 & 111] without an interval gives them a sense of completeness and unity, where echoes of one emerge in another.” The first, he says, is “quirky and colourful”; the second is “serene” like the slow movement of a symphony; the third a “stormy” finale.
This will be the first time Williams has picked these out as a stand-alone trilogy. In other full sonata projects (in Perth previously, again in 2013 when he undertakes the entire cycle over two years at London’s Wigmore Hall, and a further one in the planning stages for Glasgow), he has not necessarily unfolded them chronologically.
“You can do it either way, in the order they were written, or mixed and matched”, he says. “There is so much in the music – the humour and the serenity, the profundity and wit – that carries across the entire canon, and in whatever order you play them.”
Before Saturday’s Beethoven mini-marathon, Williams puts Liszt to the test tonight in a programme that also features Schubert’s Octet, performed by a Festival Ensemble under Janiczek’s direction. This is a taster for Williams’ forthcoming Liszt Programme in the Edinburgh Festival’s Queen’s Hall series, which coincides with the release of his second Liszt CD focusing on the Hungarian composer’s lesser known piano works.
In Crail, Willliams will play some of the notoriously flashy operatic fantasies and transcriptions, though he refutes their intellectual difficulties: “Liszt’s music is actually easier than Beethoven’s in that he was so clear, as well as being so bold, about what he wanted.” Nonetheless, Williams’s one other solo appearance – on Sunday in Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, this time coupled with Mendelssohn’s Octet – should be a relative stroll in the park.
Elsewhere in this year’s festival, the Hagen Quartet complete their two Beethoven string quartet concerts tonight in Kilrenny Church; the Leipzig String Quartet offer a double cocktail of Shostakovich, Beethoven and Mendelssohn starting tomorrow; guitarist Sean Shibe covers the vast ground between Dowland and Albeniz in the dinky, out-of-the-way Dunino Church (today at 4pm); and the SCO winds offer yet another famous octet – this time Stravinsky’s – in an otherwise lightish Sunday afternoon at Cellardyke Church.
With various exhibitions, literary talks (Richard Holloway on the personal pilgrimage he recently documented in his memoirs Leaving Alexandria), and organised walks to augment the main music programme, there’s every reason to hit the East Neuk this weekend, without fear of being forced out of your cultural comfort zone.
lThe 8th East Neuk Festival runs until 1 July, www.eastneukfestival.com
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Friday 24 May 2013
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