East Neuk Festival (2)

The piano wove a binding thread through Friday’s and Saturday’s programming at last week’s East Neuk Festival. Not at the expense of the Festival’s wider chamber music focus, but nonetheless intriguing for its variously fashioned pianistic styles and interpretations. And that’s before East Neuk veteran Christian Zacharias made his appearance – one of his last public recitals before retirement from solo performance – on Sunday.

There was an aura of elder statesmanship accompanying the presence of septuagenarian Elisabeth Leonskaja, who starred in two recitals at Crail Church. One was collaborative, teaming up with Dutch violinist Liza Ferschtman and French cellist Ivan Karizna; the other a musical soliloquy featuring the final three Piano Sonatas of Beethoven, a grouping that has been expounded brilliantly in recent years by Scots pianist Steven Osborne.

Those used to Osborne’s sublime sophistication and refined eloquence may have found the drier objectivity of Leonskaja’s Beethoven performances unyieldingly phlegmatic. Yes, she commands a focussed authority that approached its breeziest in the Sonata in E, Op 109, the lyrical expressiveness of the final variations a welcome antidote to the stormy Prestissimo, where Leonskaja’s tendency to thunder out octave bass lines first surfaced.

There was alternating distress and luminosity in the mood swings of the A flat Sonata, Op 110, rocked only by lyrical lines that sold short on silken sustainment. In the final C minor Sonata, Op 111, where the impetuosity of the opening movement found Leonskaja in comfortable territory, she most often internalised the emotional opportunities of the concluding variations, even the exuberance that lights up Beethoven’s before-its-time “boogie-woogie” moment.

That same note of reserve effected a stiffness in Schubert’s Trio no 2 in E flat in her collaboration with Ferschtman and Karizna, despite the constant promise of interactive flair and profusion of passion from the string players. 

The earlier part of that Friday recital opened our eyes to the playful duo compatibility of pianists Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy. Tasked with Schubert’s Allegro in A minor, D947, this proved to be a teasing aperitif to their own Saturday showcase programme, which culminated in the four hands version of Stravinsky’s famously paganistic The Rite of Spring.  

The route to the Stravinsky was just as tantalising, firstly in the mischievously physical and musical interplay of Poulenc’s Sonata for Piano 4 Hands, then in a cheeky alternating juxtaposition of Beethoven’s Op 45 Marches (like nuclear prototypes for his bigger symphonic creations) and several of Kurtag’s tongue-in-cheek piano sketches from his Jatekok series. One in particular of the Kurtag – a fitful “argument” over three simple chromatically-spaced notes – raised appreciative sniggers.

Then the main billing, A Rite of Spring that lacked none of the ritualistic venom, fiery virtuosity  and ballistic rhythmic edge normally associated with the full orchestral version. Tsoy and Kolesnikov invested infinite keyboard colour and energy in a performance that was thrillingly hyperactive and acutely precise. 

Boris Giltburg performed with the Pavel Haas Quartet | Neil Hanna Photography

A similar punctiliousness featured in the pianism of Boris Giltburg, whose Saturday evening programme in Crail with the Pavel Haas Quartet was a masterclass in musical synchronicity. They played two well-matched works from the golden days of European Romanticism, Brahms’ rigorously Germanic Piano Quintet in F minor, complemented perfectly by the Bohemian-scented Piano Quintet No 2 by Dvorak.

It was clear from the outset that mere routine was never on the cards. The Brahms opened teasingly slowly, but quickly accelerated into a slick and dramatically crafted performance, rich in texture and wholesome in scope. Giltburg integrated effortlessly with the off-the-shelf quartet, confidently initiating new directions where it mattered. The same unanimity of purpose brought instant warmth to the Dvorak, its fresher melodic invention a complementary foil to the solidness of the Brahms.

One other key event, a piano-less one on Friday at the Bowhouse near St Monans, focussed on a single masterpiece, Schubert’s substantial Octet, for which the Elias String Quartet teamed up with double bassist Philip Nelson and three highly-prized wind players, Alec Frank Gemmill (horn), Robert Pane (clarinet) and Robin O’Neill (bassoon). Neither the clattering above of a momentary downpour, nor the short while it took for the ensemble to calibrate as a homogenous unit, robbed this performance of its joyous thrills, nuanced generosity and internal cut and thrust. You come to East Neuk mostly for a core helping of mainstream chamber music. It rarely fails to deliver.

Ken Walton

Picture of Pavel Kolesnikov & Samson Tsoy by Neil Hanna Photography