Although most of its loyal audience comes to the East Neuk Festival to hear world-class performances of classical chamber music in beautiful, intimate acoustics – particularly some of the lovely churches in that corner of Fife – artistic director Svend McEwan-Brown has long since widened the scope of the event to embrace other spaces, outdoor events and contemporary and world music and jazz, and the audience has demonstrated an appetite for those as well.
And while it is a remarkable blessing that some of the first rank performances of the work of Czech composers by members of the Pavel Haas Quartet and pianist Boris Giltburg had previously been heard only by those attending the Prague Spring Festival, ticket-holders were also able to see and hear freshly-minted work make its first-ever appearance.
On Sunday afternoon, the repurposed agricultural shed near St Monans, the Bowhouse, hosted the largest number of musicians it saw over the course of the event when the Scottish Chamber Orchestra played the last of a run of four dates under the baton of its former principal bassoonist, Peter Whelan. For East Neuk they were joined by soprano Anna Dennis, singing two arias from Mozart’s opera Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, with the fullest expression of anguish (in Traurigkeit) and anger (Martern aller Artern). As in the two symphonies on either side of those songs, Haydn’s 82nd “The Bear” and Beethoven’s 8th, the balance in the room and the detail in the performances was superb, the singer and the wind soloists, of which Whelan was once a star member, on top form.
Early on Friday evening, however, the same space had proved just as appropriate for a unique combination of amplified music, juggling and dance under the title Light the Lights, a beautifully presented hour of the music of Bach, Steve Reich and Nico Muhly that was as much a feast for the eyes as the ears.
With the indisposition of guitarist Sean Shibe, the musical responsibility rested on the shoulders of violinist Benjamin Baker, who not only performed that wide compositional repertoire, but was the physical narrative guide through much of it, starting with a Bach-playing amble from the back of the hall that was impressive enough on its own.
Thereafter he was joined by six members of Gandini Juggling who gave visual expression to some of the compositional techniques used by Reich with clubs and balls moving through the air, in and out of synchronicity. At the conclusion of the performance they added a programmed lighting element to the mix for Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, using recorded music.
In between, the jugglers added solo work and a wry nod to Ligeti’s 100 metronomes while Baker played a movement of Reena Esmail’s Darshan and combined forces with dancer James Pett on an interpretation of Muhly’s A Long Line, for violin and electronics. Much of this had a “work in progress” feel to it, but the sense of being admitted to the creative process was the joy of it, especially with the expressive choreography of Pett, who has a hinterland of work with Richard Alston and Wayne McGregor.
In Anstruther Town Hall on Friday evening, clarinettist Julian Bliss brought a whole suite of box-fresh arrangements by vibraphone player Lewis Wright that extended his jazz excursion into surprisingly contemporary areas. The advance publicity for the Hooray for Hollywood programme had suggested the group was following its acclaimed Gershwin programme with film music from the “Golden Age” of screen musicals. In fact some of the highlights of the set were from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the 2011 movie Midnight in Paris, which adapted Bechet and Django Reinhardt for modern ears. There were classics from the Great American Songbook as well, but Bliss and his cohorts produce a disciplined sound that is a long way from the pub trad band.
As far as East Neuk’s core activity is concerned, this was a year of great riches, with pianists Elisabeth Leonskaya, Pavel Kolesnikov, Samson Tsoy, Boris Giltburg and Christian Zacharias all featured. Leonskaya played Schubert Trios with violinist Liza Ferschtman and young cellist Ivan Karizna in which the beautiful tone of the latter was a discovery, while Kolesnikov and Tsoy explored the same composer’s writing for four hands.
Although no dedication was made, there was surely a nod towards the situation in Ukraine with the Pavel Haas Quartet prefacing its Kilrenny Church concert with Joseph Suk’s nationalist Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn, St Wenceslas. Followed by Korngold’s Quartet No 3 and Janacek’s “Intimate Letters”, this was the Pavel Haas on fertile home territory, the muscular playing of leader Veronika Jaruskova and cellist Peter Jarusek tempered by the newest recruit Luosha Fang, whose viola was so central to the latter.
In Crail Church, the violin and cello couple were joined by Giltburg for two Dvorak trios: the 1876 No 2 is more conventional but less often heard and the 1891 No 4 “Dumky” was given a beautifully-shaped performance, with a particularly memorable steady pulse in the fourth movement. The same venue saw the full quartet joined by Giltburg to play piano quintets of Brahms and Dvorak, as featured on their acclaimed Supraphon recordings.
It is St Ayle Church in Anstruther that often houses other steps away from the mainstream at East Neuk, and it was home this year to the virtuosic oud player Rihab Azar. Combining with bassist Dudley Phillips and percussionist Beth Higham-Edwards, she provided a whistle-stop tour of the contemporary chamber music of Egypt, Iran and her native Syria in a refreshing and relaxing Sunday lunchtime recital that was in some ways a bridge between the core canon of East Neuk and the festival’s more radical exploratory side.
Picture of Gandini Juggling by Neil Hanna