East Neuk Festival roars back to full strength in 2022 with five days of concerts

United KingdomUnited Kingdom East Neuk Festival 2022: (SRT)

Rihab Azar (oud) (c) Neil Hanna

29.6.2022 – The Wallace Collection, Tullis Russell Mills Band, Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra, StAMP Project, Neil Brand. Bowhouse, St Monans.

30.6.2022 – Pavel Haas Quartet. Kilrenny Church, Anstruther.
Suk – Meditation on St Wenceslas
Korngold – String Quartet No.3
Janáček – String Quartet No.2, Intimate Letters

2.7.2022 – Rihab Azar (oud), Luke Daniels (accordion and guitar). St Ayle’s Church, Anstruther.
Folk music from the British Isles and the Middle East

3.7.2022 – Anna Dennis (soprano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Peter Whelan (conductor). Bowhouse, St Monans.
Haydn – Symphony No.82, The Bear
Mozart – Arias from Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Beethoven – Symphony No.8

Last year’s East Neuk Festival was one of the first live events north of the border to emerge from Covid (Scotland’s restrictions were much harsher than those of the rest of the UK), but it was still a long way from normal. Three days of concerts took place in masked isolation in a distanced warehouse, but it was still like manna from heaven for a public that had been starved of music for so long. This year, however, was a roar back to full strength, with five days of concerts in a range of venues across the golden coastline of Fife’s East Neuk. In only five days the festival’s Artistic Director, Svend McEwan-Brown, managed to put on an incredible range of events with superb artists, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Thunderplump (c) Neil Hanna

Let’s start with the ridiculous. The festival is admirably anchored in its local community, and every year does something that throws open its arms in glorious inclusivity. This year that was Thunderplump. Thunderplump is a Scots words for a drenching downpour that seems to come out of nowhere. For this event on the festival’s first day several local groups came together for music that celebrated the Scottish weather, from Snaw and Sundoon to Blowin’ a Hoolie. The music was created by the groups that played it, from the whizzes of the Tullis Russell Mills Band (TRMB) and the Wallace Collection, to the less professional but equally enthusiastic StAMP project and the Fife Youth Jazz Orchestra (FYJO). Nine short films by David Behrens accompanied the music, blending archive footage with specially shot film that was sometimes bewitchingly beautiful to watch, often focusing on the coast that is such an important part of this region’s identity.

The music ranged from persuasive swing from the FYJO to unleashed brass solos that represented strong gusts of wind. I especially enjoyed the TRMB’s antiphonally placed solo trumpets playing against rolling Peter Grimesish deep basses like the swell of the rolling deep. All of the ensembles came together for the final piece, the eponymous Thunderplump, written for everyone by pianist Neil Brand, whose easy music created probably the most laid-back version of a thunderstorm that I have ever heard. Brand himself raised the curtain by playing the piano for a screening of Buster Keaton’s The Boat, an accident-prone maritime adventure that made me happy my feet were on dry land!

And the sublime? Well, it is a sign of the festival’s appeal that it draws back regularly some of the greatest artists around. As a case in point, the Pavel Haas Quartet were frequent guests before Covid, and it is a thrill to see them back again this year. One of the finest string quartets in central Europe playing in the little church of Kilrenny is one of the most rarefied musical experiences you will ever be lucky enough to hear, and they were on scorching form in an all-Czech programme of music; or at least of music by composers who were all born in what we now call the Czech Republic. Under their bows Suk’s Wenceslas Meditation moved from a dusky, almost veiled sound, into passionate intensity and raw emotion before subsiding into a hushed resignation. A similar shape came out in Korngold’s String Quartet No.3. The first and third movements were so intensely involved as to put any listener through the emotional wringer, while the second and fourth felt like lopsided dances teetering on the verge of collapse.

It was all anchored by the Pavel Haas Quartet’s incredible tone colour; a flowing, molten chocolate river of sound that is steeped in the central European tradition, magnificently luxurious to listen to, but with never a note wasted. That helped almost to tame Janáček’s Intimate Letters quartet, a work so gloriously untethered as to be simultaneously baffling and exhilarating. The composer’s surging passion for his muse, Kamila Stösslová, comes out in music that’s brittle, urgent, impassioned and explosive. Most quartets would be intimidated by it, but these players seemed to have it exactly where they wanted it; passion combined with poetry, and an overwhelming feeling of sustained musical engagement.

Due to the size of its venues, the East Neuk Festival doesn’t really have a strong orchestral thread. If it has a house orchestra then it is the Scottish Chamber Orchestra who tend to play one concert per festival. Their venue is the Bowhouse, a farmer’s market just inland from the pretty village of St Monans. It is basically a warehouse and its acoustic is a little tinny, but orchestral music works rather well there, with enough distance around the sound to give it some bloom. I don’t think I have ever heard singing in there before, though, and the space matched Anna Dennis’s super soprano rather well. Singing Constanze’s two big arias from Act II of Die Entführung aus dem Serail demonstrates the two extremes of any voice, and she managed to encapsulate the contrast very effectively. The voice was plangent and tearful in Traurigkeit, balancing well against the orchestral winds, and she managed all the theatrics of Martern aller Arten very impressively.

The orchestra was conducted by one of their own, Peter Whelan, their former principal bassoon. Whelan wisely moved to the front of the orchestra the concertante group of instruments that have such important solos in the opening tutti of Martern aller Artern, the better to balance the sound, and he conducted a persuasively ebullient performance of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. He is an agile but undemonstrative presence on the podium, casually flicking in a phrase here or an accent there, and his take on Haydn’s Bear Symphony felt held energy and elegance in tandem.

McEwan-Brown has also built a persuasive world music strain into the festival: who would have imagined finding oud, nyatiti and flamenco performances in the polite surroundings of the East Neuk?! I heard oud virtuoso Rihab Azar playing with folk musician Luke Daniels, and I can’t imagine the little Anstruther church has ever heard anything like it! The delicate sound of the oud blended remarkably well with Daniels’s guitar and accordion, suggesting that there is something universal about folk music that speaks so directly to the heart. Azar led with music that hailed from Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Sudan, while Daniels led Scottish jigs and Irish reels in a really lovely fusion. Wonderful, and unfathomably exotic for Fife!

Simon Thompson

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