East Neuk Festival
Sean Shibe/Benjamin Baker
The live performances at a briefer East Neuk Festival – for a much-circumscribed audience capacity – may be over for the summer, but other aspects of it can be enjoyed online until August 1 via its website. Short films of very high quality sound and vision include performances by artists who were not part of the live events, like the Tallis Scholars and pianist Llyr Williams, as well as different projects by some of those who were, including violinist Benjamin Baker and guitarist Sean Shibe.
Those two combined forces at the Bowhouse on Saturday morning to play music by Arvo Part, Manuel de Falla and Bela Bartok in a recital that was far-removed from their individual film excursions into solo violin Bach and acoustic and electric guitar quartets.
There was an overlap in that Part’s Summa features in the films of Shibe’s guitar collective and his Fratres began the live concert, with the equally soundtrack-familiar Spiegel im Spiegel mirroring it (appropriately enough) at the end, when Baker was joined by his regular recital partner, Daniel Lebhardt.
Shibe, who had a solo spot playing Mompou from his forthcoming debut collection for the Pentatone label, was slightly the junior partner in the duos, if only because the stylistic switching required of the violinist in tackling the different composers was the more ear-catching. Baker was chill and precise in the minimalist music, with all that work on Bach with the Royal Conservatoire’s Head of Strings David Watkins doubtless bearing more modern fruit, and fruity and sassy in the Seven Spanish Songs and Romanian Dances.
He and Lebhardt also played the biggest work in the programme, the world premiere of Matthew Kaner’s Highland Scenes. If there were particularly Scottish references in the broad topography of Kaner’s demanding score, which had huge variation of tone, range and dynamics, they escaped me on first listen, but I’ll be keen to re-assess that impression when the recording is broadcast on BBC Radio 3.
Pianist Paul Lewis was the big name live attraction at the Bowhouse, with concerts on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Making his debut at the festival, the first programme was one that was a product of the pandemic – a single span of an hour and a quarter with only one brief pause for applause after the first work.
It was Mozart’s Sonata in A K331, on which the ringing tone of the Steinway hinted at what was to come, as did the clear impression from the opening bars that Lewis was as concerned with the arc of the whole work as its finer details, beautifully played though they were. That applause break was brief as Lewis sat down quickly, without leaving the stage, to enter the very different sound-world, and mindset, of Scriabin. The condensed expression of the Five Preludes the pianist treated as a preface to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, leaving no space between the last of those and the first Promenade.
This was as dynamic a Pictures as you are likely to hear, and if not to the taste of all, hugely exciting to my ears. Crucially, it at no point brought to mind the work’s later orchestration: this was pianism at full throttle. It was also, when it should be, very loud, the chords bouncing around the reverberant acoustic. The impression was of a musician exploiting the limitations of the venue with all his skills, stomping on the forte pedal of the concert grand like a man possessed. Importantly, though, no detail was lost, even in passages that were played faster than I had ever heard them.
After that, Sunday afternoon’s recital could only be a more sober affair, even if its biggest piece was Schubert’s Sonata in B, which is a bouncy imperious work, full of dances and marches. Mozart’s rather dark Adagio in B minor and five of Mendelssohn’s loveliest Songs Without Words, ending with the gorgeous hymn-like Opus 30 No 3, began the published programme, and Lewis added Schubert’s Allegretto in C Minor as an encore. The whole afternoon was a masterclass of the best piano writing.