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East Neuk Festival, various venues, Fife Dazzling French quartet push the limits

In five days of consistently excellent concerts in this coastal corner of Fife, two performers really stood out.

One was probably inevitable: the Quatuor Ebène, a dazzling young French string quartet who made their Scottish debut and proved the talking point of the festival. Their sound is glossy and bright (satisfyingly French) and flawlessly virtuosic. They play with total unity but are endlessly malleable, able to shift direction on an unspoken unanimous whim.

There’s an arrogance about their stage presence; these lads know they’re good. But that seems to goad them to go further, to push the limits of technique and interpretation, and to palpably enjoy doing so. It made for a superb performance of the Debussy quartet, more volatile and sensual than I’ve ever heard. And it made for an astounding account of Beethoven’s Opus 131, a tangled, angular mess of a quartet that the Ebènes tackled with unbridled ferocity.

Sure, they lacked the measured profundity of older quartets, but this was a sincere and forceful reaction to a formidable score. Radio 3 will broadcast that concert in early August, so you’ve a chance to judge for yourselves.

The other performer who stood out for me could hardly be more of a contrast. I’m told that Aleksandar Madzar’s three concerts of Bach Partitas sold the least well of any in the festival. Maybe it was the 4pm time slot, or maybe on paper these programmes lacked the thrill of Christian Zacharias’s late-period Brahms or the Elias Quartet’s Mendelssohn. But the Serbian pianist played Bach with a quiet, introspective vulnerability that was deeply moving to witness. There was nothing dazzling here; even the faster movements were playful rather than showy, while the Sarabandes were still and vulnerable, never sentimental.

The two Elias concerts came with breathless reports of their performances at last year’s festival, and justifiably so. This quartet clearly thinks hard about the music they play. They’ve a strong sense of architecture and pass melodies between them with earnest grace. Maybe they lack the Ebène’s sparkling technique, but their sheer determination becomes an effective part of their performance, especially in repertoire like Mendelssohn’s tortured Quartet in F minor, Opus 80. Over the next few years they are working on a complete Beethoven cycle, and it seems the journey will be very much worth following.

Meanwhile, Zacharias’s impressive residency ranged from solo Beethoven to a talk, rambling and enthusiastic, on Romantic pianism, to Brahms’s G-minor Piano Quartet with the Leopold String Trio. They were a fine match in terms of musical chutzpah, though personally I find violinist Isabelle van Keulen’s brazen approach too blanketing; violist Lawrence Power finds a better balance of gutsy attacks and rich, nuanced lyricism.

Van Keulen also featured in a Friday-night concert with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Saint Andrews, playing Vaughan-Williams’s The Lark Ascending for the first time in her career. Here she did find a finer, quieter touch which conductor Richard Egarr and the SCO cushioned nicely. But as the only orchestral offering of the festival, this strange programme (it also included John Adams, Ives, Bach and Schubert) seemed out of scale and character -- proof, I suppose, of just how well the rest of the festival’s programming achieved a subtle cohesion.

Artistic Director Svend Brown says he doesn’t want the festival to grow much in terms of number of concerts; three or four each day is just about right. To me, the breadth of repertoire this year bordered on too narrow (only one concert ventured past the 19th century) so hopefully Brown’s plans to commission new works for future festivals will come to fruition.

In just seven years, however, Brown has honed in on a very workable formula. The village churches around the East Neuk of Fife give concerts an easy intimacy that both audiences and musicians respond to. One of the parish ladies pouring interval teas at Kilrenny Church explained that, as a rule, the sun always shines over the East Neuk of Fife during the festival (and so it did). She also said she would never bother going to a big concert hall again.

HHHHH

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