EAST NEUK: Castalian / Tsoy

Bowhouse, St Monans, Fife

The East Neuk Festival has a long and successful record in platforming the best young string quartets. A central presence in this year’s downscaled live Festival activity – a much-welcomed three-day concentration of socially-distances concerts in the spacious Bowhouse venue near St Monans – was the Castalian Quartet, ten years old this year, but still very much part of the younger generation UK ensembles scene with a 2019 Royal Philharmonic Society Young Artist of the Year award to prove it.

They gave two concerts in Fife last weekend: one on Saturday that tested their mettle (and Beethoven’s) against the torrents of rain crashing down on the Bowhouse roof; the other with a double dose of sunny Mendelssohn that wasn’t all it seemed, but which played out under more clement East Neuk skies.

In either case, the punchy individuality of this ensemble was a steady theme. It was Beethoven’s first composed quartet, Op18 No3, that came with foul-weather accompaniment, despite which the Castalians, with smiling acceptance, breathed continuous fresh thoughts into the music. Their teamwork was intuitive, the phrases rising and ebbing in natural, unanimous undulations. This opening performance took a moment to settle, but when it did their completeness fed the music with mirth, muscle and, when called for, a profound reflectiveness. 

It was paired with Dvorak’s last completed quartet, Op105, a work of intense emotional ambivalence that plays out like a tussle between the heart and the head. The players embraced that challenge, chasing the debate through the stormy passions of the opening two movements, the darker moods of the Lento, and the whirlwind finale, where doubts are finally dispelled.

Sunday’s second concert played games with the name Mendelssohn. For these were two quartets by different siblings – the famous Felix and his almost-as-famous sister Fanny – and second violinist Daniel Roberts made the most of a superbly concocted introduction that avoided telling us which was which. That, he said, would be put to a show of hands at the end. The majority got it right.

The superior consistency and seamless craftsmanship of Felix’s Quartet in F minor Op80 was evident from the the start, and a seething, virtuoso performance by the Castilians nailed it completely. The whole performance was lifted by crafty subtleties of interplay, expressive precision and, in the finale, fearless bravado. In Fanny’s E Flat Quartet – dedicated to the memory of her predeceased brother – they homed in on the gentler lyrical DNA, but equally revelled in another wild and dangerous finale.

This East Neuk series began on Friday with a solo recital by the young Russian pianist Samson Tsoy. His pairing of pieces was one of extremes. He opened with a selection of Geörgy Kurtág’s short and irreverent Játékok pieces, effectively games for the piano in which the composer indulges mean and mischievous humour. Guaranteed to jolt an audience into life is Hommage a Csajkovszkij, a grotesque play on the opening piano chords of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, which are converted into an eruption of emphatic forearm clusters.

Tsoy, clearly at home in this ironic style, chose six of the pieces, including the more delicate Hommage a Schubert, which seemed a perfect teaser for the Schubert B flat Sonata that was to follow.

It was in that late Schubert sonata that Tsoy’s focus seemed to weaken. His articulation of the lyrical line was judiciously firm, and there was serious thought put into the character and shape of individual paragraphs. But as a whole, this performance was over-thought, in some cases over-wrought. Schubert doesn’t simply play itself, but there are natural dimensions within which his music is best kept. Tsoy took us into a more indulgent place.
Ken Walton 

Additional online activity from ENF is available to view till 1 Augustat  https://eastneukfestival.com/events/online/