Music review: East Neuk Festival

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THURSDAY marked the first full day of events at this year’s East Neuk Festival, its contents epitomising the intimacy and adventurous spirit that are this well-established festival’s watchwords. From solo recital to community project, and from duo to quartet – not to mention the customary manic race around the Neuk’s tapestry of B-roads in search of the next venue – the experience was full on, if uncharacteristically mixed in quality.

Various venues, Fife

Yeol Eum Son''''Photo: Marco Borggreve

Yeol Eum Son''''Photo: Marco Borggreve

First up, a morning recital in Crail Church by the young South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son (***), which looked blistering on paper, but in reality took time to heat up. She has a personal fascination for music written at the turbulent start of the 20th century, thus the tantalising mix of Gershwin, Ravel and Stravinsky.

The last was a dazzling tour de force, Yeol Eum finding that vital emotional connection with the music and physically embracing its raw energy and dynamic extremes with ferocious virtuosity. The encore – Moskowski’s effervescent Etincelles – was just as captivating, just as virtuosic.

The same could not be said for Yeol Eum’s Gershwin songs, however, which lacked a natural and spontaneous lilt. Nor did her reading of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin get to the root of these dance-inspired movements. Except for the final fiery Toccata, and odd moments of inspired nuance, much of this left me cold.

A mid-afternoon recital in Kilconquhar Church brought together Scots soprano Mhairi Lawson (pictured above) and lutenist Paula Chateauneuf in a programme of 17th century music called Mad Women, Queens & Lovers (**).

As ever, Lawson’s engaging delivery found purity and passion in nascent operatic numbers by Carissimi, Francesca Caccini and Monteverdi, set within a framework of couthy Scots songs, and English ones by Purcell and Lawes. The problem lay with Chateauneuf’s unsettled playing on theorbo, and a presentational informality by both that lacked true connection and bordered on unpreparedness.

No such issue in Lost at Sea, essentially a sound installation by composer Scanner conceived as a tribute to the many men in the East Neuk fishing industry who lost their lives at sea, but given human voice in this premiere presentation in Waid Academy, Anstruther (****) by confident young musicians from the school. The concept was simple and unpretentious, with minimal symbolism, yet was all the more moving for that. The pulverising soundtrack is gnawing and evocative.

The real treat of the day came in a brilliant evening recital in Kilrenny Church by the excellent Castalian Quartet (*****). Playing quartets by Haydn, Caroline Shaw and Schumann, their unique style – a powerful individuality of sound matched by an instinctive singularity of musical intention – lit up every single moment.

The red hot rustic passion that signs off Haydn’s Op76 No5 Quartet was matched earlier by tenderness and inspired detail. Schumann’s Op41 No1 in A minor was breathtakingly pungent, yet equally sympathetic to the music’s delicacies and textural complexities.

If music has hallucinogenic properties, they were abundant in Shaw’s intoxicating Entr’acte, which contrasts period pastiche with wild forays into the modern abstract. A terrific programme; amazing players.

KEN WALTON