Gig review: East Neuk Festival, Fife

THIS year’s 10th East Neuk Festival, which added jazz to the previous diet of classical and literary events, was the most extensive ever, and will remain the blueprint for future festivals, according to festival director Svend Brown.
The Jin Xing Dance Theatre made its UK debut in Glasgow last week. Picture: GettyThe Jin Xing Dance Theatre made its UK debut in Glasgow last week. Picture: Getty
The Jin Xing Dance Theatre made its UK debut in Glasgow last week. Picture: Getty

East Neuk Festival - Crail, Fife

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But is it a festival of true substance? Again, as this year’s final weekend proved, no question there. There were two significant focuses. Friday featured contrasting aspects of James MacMillan’s music; while all of Saturday was given over to four concerts focussing on Schubert’s chamber music.

The latter – a veritable Schubertiade – ran like a sophisticated variety show, a mixed gathering of top artists thrown together in various combinations to facilitate a quick-fire snapshot of Schubert’s versatility in the genre. Its benefit was to combine such jewels of concision as the songs, alongside proof in such longer works as the sonatas, trios and quartets of Schubert’s oft-questioned ability to master the larger scale.

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The Gould Trio’s full engagement in the late E flat Piano Trio was a case in point, performances fired by equal measures of intellectual sculpting and theatrical impulsiveness, enough of each to overcome the prolixity of the first and final movements.

In a concert shared with pianist Llŷr Williams, the Belcea Quartet brought their own brand of dramatic fire to the Rosamunde Quartet, tantalisingly impetuous, but sensitive enough to engage the delicious will o’ the wisp subtleties of the finale.

Williams preceded that with the four solo “Impromptus”, welcoming us into his rarified world of idiosyncratic polarisation, enlightening if a tad inflexible. He is a fine accompanist, as he later demonstrated with Swedish soprano Malin Christensson. But hers was not a voice – scooping, erratic and lacking sustained line – that matched up to the likes of Du bist die Ruh or (with clarinettist Maximiliano Martin) the famous Shepherd on the Rock. Things only truly fell into place when she dropped such affectations, as in the direct and strophic Die Forelle.

Master of all things Schubert, though, was pianist Christian Zacharias, who signed Saturday off with the colossal B flat Sonata. His instinctive musicality, every tonal touch a meaningful gem, was absolute magic to the ears.

James MacMillan’s music featured through most of Friday’s programming. The Gould Trio complemented his earlier 14 Little Pictures with the Scottish premiere of the Piano Trio No 2, a tantalisingly fun piece of writing in which MacMillan flits mercilessly between cartoon-music parody (like the madhouse extremes of a Tom and Jerry soundtrack), savage echoes of teenage rock piano, and mystical Scots melody, something only possible from the experienced hand of maturity.

In Cambo Barn, the SCO, under Clemens Schuldt, also included MacMillan’s hauntingly picturesque A Meditation on Iona, which highlighted the electrifying immediacy of this unlikely venue’s visceral acoustics.

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We left this year’s festival with news of two new initiates launching next year: a new East Neuk Retreat programme to foster young chamber musicians, and a new series of ongoing commissions. Even more substance for an event that has truly earned its stripes.

Seen on 04.07.14 and 05.07.14