East Neuk Festival, Various venues, East Neuk, Fife
Wall-to-wall Tallis, lashings of lobster, and all that jazz
Sunday 11 July 2010
There is enough shoreline between Orkney and Aldeburgh to leave room for another festival within a whiff of the sea, especially when it's as inventive and invigorating an event as the five-day East Neuk Festival.
Now in its sixth year, it makes its presence felt along the Scottish peninsula once described as "a beggar's mantle fringed with gold". Stretching from St Andrews to Elie, by way of colourful seaside and inland villages – taking in cottages with crow-steeped gables, sweeping shores and bustling harbours enhanced by a clutch of historic churches – this area of Fife enjoys a warm microclimate as well as some of Europe's best lobster potting.
The weather certainly benefits more than just the Open Golf Championships. Alongside the Anstruther Lifeboat Gala and the Pittenweem Fish Festival, the East Neuk Festival represents a substantial cultural catch, a distinctive asset to Scotland's cultural scene. Mixing classical music and jazz with the magic of East Neuk at midsummer, this year the festival director, Svend Brown, also introduced some formidable sand-sculpting and commissioned a short film showing what attracted holidaymakers to the "sea-bathing stations and unsurpassable resorts for valetudinarians" early in the last century. Nowdays it's the festival, of course.
At one end of the scale was a mega event in Holy Trinity Church, St Andrews – a collaboration between the Tallis Scholars, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Belcea Quartet and the specially formed East Neuk Singers. If the SCO's glowing account, under Alexander Janiczek, of Richard Strauss's Metamorphosen for 23 solo strings was moving and engaging, Thomas Tallis's tricky 40-part motet Spem in Alium (performed twice – why?) scarcely came off, despite the valiant efforts of Peter Phillips and his plucky troops. The concert, entitled Colossus, was a drawn-out affair in which seemingly endless works by Tallis droned on, dimming the glorious memory of Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia earlier in the evening. Pushing the boat out is one thing for a festival, but if it's to steer clear of drowning, East Neuk's should perhaps stay closer to shore.
Brown likes mini-residencies, and in three concerts members of the Elias String Quartet proved admirably responsive to the subtle shading and rhythmic flexibility of Britten's string quartets. It was the same meticulous musicianship that distinguishes their recent recording of quartets no 2 and 3. Coupled with Schubert's early, Haydnesque G minor quartet, the first quartet – a product of Britten's years in the US – was given a fresh and well-balanced reading, the slow movement anticipating the Moonlight interlude of Peter Grimes.
In the 12th-century Crail church, I caught the second of three concerts given by Katherine Broderick, 2007 winner of the Kathleen Ferrier Award, and the young Irish tenor Robin Tritschler. With the incomparable Martin Martineau at the piano, the two shared songs by Schubert, Schumann and Britten, with Tritschler's plangent timbre and innate feeling probing the aching rapture and disillusion of Schumann's Dichterliebe. Perceptive and musically faultless, it was a highlight not just of the festival but of the whole summer.
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