Pianist Kawamura and the Dorics prove Crail Parish Church the ‘perfect place for chamber music’

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various, East Neuk Festival 2024 [1]: Crail Parish Church, Fife. (SRT)

Hisako Kawamura playing in Crail Parish Church © Neil Hanna

26.6.2024 – Hisako Kawamura (piano), Doric Quartet (Yume Fujise, Ying Xue [violins], Hélène Clément [viola], John Myerscough [cello])

Beethoven – String Quartet in G, Op.18 No. 2
R. Schumann – Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op.44

27.6.2024 – Hisako Kawamura (piano)

Beethoven – Piano Sonatas, Op.27 Nos. 1 & 2 ‘Moonlight’
Nadia BoulangerVers la vie nouvelle
Akio YashiroSonate pour piano

A big birthday calls for a celebration. 2024 is the twentieth year of Fife’s East Neuk Festival, and the festival’s five-day span contains a terrific showpiece of what it does best, namely bringing great artists to play terrific music in beautiful venues.

In the festival’s opening concert, John Myerscough, the cellist of the Doric Quartet described Crail Parish Church as a ‘perfect place for chamber music’. He’s right. It is partly the church’s size – spacious enough to let the music breath but intimate enough to let the audience feel like they are eavesdropping on something private – and partly the interior’s combination of stone and wood that give the sound just enough resonance and presence. The Dorics made the most of that in their playing of Beethoven’s Op.18 Second Quartet, but the acoustics work was made easy by the marvellous tone the quartet was able to produce. They play this repertoire with period bows, and that bites into the sound in a way that is as beautiful as it is revelatory. Textures are transparent without being spare, and the players have a way of leaning into the longer notes that makes them sound lean and vibrant. That gave a dance-like quality to the outer movements, even in the faster sections, but they managed to achieve a gorgeous, oaky richness in the slow movement that was mellow enough to melt any listener’s heart.

The festival does this every year. The combination of performer and venue seems to be made in heaven, because it brings out the best in both. Take pianist Hisako Kawamura, for example, whose playing of Ravel’s Sonatine brought out all of its rippling, undulating lines in a way that seemed to roll the music through the air towards the listeners’ ears, tenderness and reserve serving as the foil for bursts of muscular tone in the central Menuet.

However, the ENF’s director, Svend McEwan-Brown, has a particular knack for spotting partnerships, and it is in those that the festival’s magic really sparkles. The Doric Quartet joined forces with Kawamura to give a performance of Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet that was nothing short of masterly, not least because they knew when to give and when to hold back. A case in point was the ebullient opening, which didn’t lay all of its cards onto the table at once. Instead it held a lot of energy in reserve, releasing it slowly through the first movement, brimming over at the start of the recapitulation while leaving space for the gorgeous, mellow sweetness of the second subject. Their slow movement trod a delicate line between happiness and sorrow, settling on a beautifully understated melancholy, while there was terrific vigour to the Scherzo alongside the focused summation of the finale. This was one of those performances where the audience gave a noticeable sigh of pleasure between the movements, creating a palpable energy that the players fed off to raise their game to greater height.

And that was only the opening concert! Kawamura played a solo concert the following day, playing both of Beethoven’s Op.27 sonatas, and making the fantastical first one sound even more inventive than the famous Moonlight second. Nadia Boulanger’s Vers la vie nouvelle began with terrible dread, expressed in chords of muscular power, but transformed into music that shimmered quietly with hope. Most interestingly, however, she played the sonata by fellow Japanese composer Akio Yashiro. He studied with Boulanger and Messiaen in Paris, and there are flashes of the European avant garde in the sonata’s music, but it also contains hints of Japanese Gagaku, bursts of power alternating with music of almost pointilliste delicacy. The second and third movements, in particular, contained scattergun explosions of notes, but they were always played with remarkable control. She then dazzled us all with her encore, one of Guillaume Connesson’s Angel Dances whose shoulder-shaking energy seemed briefly to make Crail Church feel like a smoky Manhattan jazz club.

The East Neuk Festival runs until Sunday 30th June for more information click here.

Simon Thompson

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