Tag Archives: East Neuk

EAST NEUK: Lewis, Shibe/Baker

East Neuk Festival

Paul Lewis

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.


Keith Bruce

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/

Blended menu in East Neuk

As Scotland looks forward to the possible return of some live performances over the summer, following this week’s announcement at Holyrood by the First Minister, the East Neuk Festival in Fife has come sprinting out of the blocks with a programme of online, on air and outdoor activity.

Running over the weekend July 1 to 4, the Festival, directed since its inception by Svend McEwan-Brown, will be providing pop-up performances by its Band-in-a-Van in the pretty coastal villages.

Its regular sand artists, Jamie Wardley and Claire Jamieson, will be creating work on Elie beach, and the grounds of the National Trust-run Kellie Castle at Pittenweem will see the installation of a labyrinth based on the contours of the Fife Coastal Path, cut into a wildflower meadow.

The programme that will be available online includes many artists who have visited the festival in the past, alongside some making their East Neuk debuts. The Tallis Scholars mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Josquin with a performance of his Missa Ave maris stella alongside music by Gibbons, Byrd and Tallis. The Castalian String Quartet will play Beethoven’s late String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132 alongsideJanáček‘s The Kreutzer Sonata and pianist Llyr Williams will perform Chopin’s 24 Préludes, Debussy’s Reflets dans l’eau, and Mozart’s Sonata No. 13 in B flat major, K333. 

BBC Radio 3 will collaborate with the festival on four concerts. Ranging from Adès to Zacharias, the performances will be recorded on Saturday 3 July and Sunday 4 July for future broadcast. Musicians from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and guitarist Sean Shibe will be joined by composer and conductor Thomas Adès, in his first visit to the festival, in a performance of two of his works – Court Studies from The Tempest and Habanera from The Exterminating Angel – along with music by Poulenc, De Falla, Janáček and the UK premiere of Francisco Coll’s Turia for ensemble and solo guitar.

Pianist Christian Zacharias returns to Fife to perform a programme of Bach, Haydn and Schubert’s Sonata in G, D894 – a work he performed by candlelight in his first ENF recital in 2005. The Castalian Quartet pair Beethoven’s early string quartet, No. 3, Op.18, with Dvořák’s final string quartet, No. 14, Op. 105, whilst violinist Benjamin Baker and guitarist Sean Shibe, both currently embarking on ENF Retreat residencies, will perform as a duo for the first time in a programme that will include Bach, Cage, Piazzolla, Pärt and Steve Reich. At present the festival is unable to offer tickets to these recordings but should it become possible to invite an audience, the festival will make event details and tickets available.

“We know not everybody will feel comfortable coming to a festival this year, so we hope that by giving the opportunity to visit digitally, and – in partnership with BBC Radio 3 – on the radio, we can offer the joy of ENF to as many people as possible,” said McEwan-Brown.

General Manager Ian Gray added: “Following yesterday’s announcement by Nicola Sturgeon we welcome the possibility of a return of performances with audiences indoors, and will respond swiftly to announce more events in Fife 1- 4 July once we have the full details of how this will work.”

Full details of what is currently on offer at ENF this summer can be seen on its website: www.eastneukfestival.com

Musical movies in the East Neuk

The East Neuk Festival of chamber music in exquisite locations in the Kingdom of Fife is, like many other events, still waiting to see what is possible this year after having to cancel last summer’s event.

In the meantime, it has embarked on a Big Project with its “Arts Activist” David Behrens to which local residents and any of the festival’s regular audience are invited to contribute. Behrens has made a beautiful – and surprisingly musical – little film, 3 Amazing Minutes in St Monans, which can – and should – be viewed on the Vimeo platform (https://vimeo.com/508804285).

It was shot entirely on his smart phone, and now the ENF is soliciting 10 second pieces of phone-made footage from its friends and followers for him to work with. Complete instructions and examples of the sort of thing he’s after can be found at eastneukfestival.com/bigproject. Our picture of the much-snapped breakwater at St Monans is a still from one short video by festival director Svend McEwan-Brown.