East Neuk Festival 1

Kilkenny Church / Crail Church

Maybe it was too much to ask of the Scottish weather that the scorcher we’d enjoyed throughout June remain firmly  in place for the 2023 East Neuk Festival. In the event, the close of the month, coinciding with the first two days of the Festival, offered more typical climatic variables – a sizzling Thursday followed by a cool, showery Friday – and so did the music.

Thursday’s performances felt like a congenial warm-up: two really interesting programmes delivered with just a suspicion of settling in – not exactly unexpected after the impact and hangover of Covid. 

First up was a return ENF visit by French-Canadian cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, a solo recital in the amiable ambience of Kilrenny Church that began in the 20th century – a selection of Geörgy Kurtág’s étude-like aphorisms – and ended with the sanguine Bach Cello Suite in C minor. It was in the former – incendiary miniatures scattered among the progressive Hungarian composer’s output like personal journal entries – that Queyras realised the most positive impact, incisive and colourful interpretations that nailed the ballistic concentration of the music.

Beyond that, Queyras’ playing was probing and eloquent, emotive in its realisation of the inner musings expressed by Turkish composer Ahmet Annan Saygun in his Bach-like Partita for Cello, yet as a consequence, too free in its rhythmic definition, which tended to rob the ensuing Bach Suite, and two other short Baroque pieces, of their natural energy.

There was no lack of oomph in that evening’s Crail Church programme by the Belcea Quartet and Friends, which saw the familiar core ensemble augmented with Queyras and feisty Berlin Philharmonic violist Diyang Mei for a gritty performance of Brahms’ String Sextet No 1 in B flat, prefaced by a bombastic solo performance of movements from Liszt’s Les Années de Pèlerinage Book II by pianist Bertrand Chamanyou.

Chamanyou’s Liszt was epic, power-driven at times to the point of near-destruction, yet shot through with plentiful moments of deep sensitivity and flowing virtuosity to counter its viciousness. The closing Dante-inspired work was a case in point, thrillingly apocalyptic, but edging towards tonal distortion. If the Brahms adopted something of that bravado mentality, it was to mostly positive ends and a performance attuned fittingly to both the music’s homogenous richness and internal strife.

Friday held its own fascination, a thrilling late morning Kilrenny programme by the Castalian Quartet, followed late afternoon by an individualistic solo recital from South Korean pianist Yeol Eum Son

Previous visits by the Castalian Quartet have been notable for the naturalness with which they strike a classy balance between the individual and the body corporate. Such was the magical essence of a Mozart Quartet in D minor that divulged, through a combination of smiling interaction and devious self opinion, its awakening drama and characterful grace. Fuller passions emerged in the Dvorak, yet enlivened by that same flexible discipline and measured effusion.

Like the Castalians, Yeol Eum Son will be back in Scotland later this summer for the Edinburgh International Festival, which on this evidence will be a starry twin attraction. Son, whose recent recordings of the complete Mozart piano sonatas were singularly impressive, played two of these works in her Crail programme. In the C Minor Fantasy her total immersion in the music was fascinating, at the same time unnerving. She seemed to agonise over the opining of the Fantasy, as if deliberately deconstructing its flow. One the other hand, the C minor Sonata took its natural course, a little short on lyrical inevitability perhaps, but genuinely spirited.

Impetuousness had its place in Janacek’s Sonata No 1 (From the Street), with its disturbing transformations – quite Jekyll and Hyde in character and style – and wild excursions between achingly suspended time and crashing climaxes. Son signed off with exuberant flair in the Sonata No 2 by Ukrainian composer Nikolay Kapustin. It is unadulterated jazz, frenzied improvisation writ large, played here with breathtaking virtuosity and physical abandon. It had its tender moments – a bluesy Largo with super-heated harmonies – but the emphasis was on showmanship, which Son applied full on. She leapt from her stool in the final flurry of madcap glissandi; we all but jumped from our own seats in instant response.

Ken Walton