It seems Quatuor Ebene are an unflappable bunch. They arrived at the East Neuk Festival several hours late (having ended up at Aberdeen rather than Edinburgh Airport - one of those days) and walked on stage looking already knackered, yet proceeded to tackle some of the most challenging music in string-quartet repertoire with dizzying technical command and breathtaking subtlety.
To successfully scale two of Beethoven's most sprawling and confounding late string quartets in one concert is a test of stamina on the best of nights; to do so after a day of missed flights and airport faff is a rare skill indeed.
Beethoven's Opus 131 and Opus 132 are huge undertakings for a young quartet. There is no question that the Ebenes have a great deal to say about this music: their accounts were intensely felt and very original in places. These Frenchmen are masters of textural nuance - what a vast and vivid palette they produce - and their ability to move around their instruments seems plain effortless. But nothing came across as off-the-cuff. Every shade of vibrato and intonation was applied with careful intent, and their delivery was never presumptuous or overblown.
Crucially, they didn't force any conclusions or impose any narratives. Instead they respected the fitful, difficult nature of these scores, from the earthy opening lines of Op 131 to its brusque, brutish finale, from the opening brawn of Op 132 to its heartbreakingly troubled close.
My only quibble relates to their speedy pacing of the Heiliger Dankgesang: maybe on a more settled night they'd have let the chorales really expand. They recently recorded both pieces, so we'll have a chance to find out.
Kristian Bezuidenhout/Ensemble Marsyas
St Monans Church
There's nothing quite like Mozart played properly on a fortepiano. By "properly" I don't mean primly or safely; I mean fiercely, passionately, full of the sweet, clanging, kaleidoscopic noises that only a fortepiano (classical predecessor to the modern piano) can muster.
The South African period-specialist Kristian Bezuidenhout is an exemplar here. In the close acoustics of the stern old kirk at St Monans, his performance of Mozart's stormy Sonata in C minor K457 bristled with drama and bright colours - he made such a range of sounds through finger articulation alone that I found myself triple-checking that the instrument had no sustain pedal or soft pedal (it didn't). There was a great sense of adventure to his volatile first movement; the expansive Adagio was rhapsodic, almost operatic, with Bezuidenhout really savouring the ever-darkening key shifts. He flew into the finale at breakneck speed and gave Beethovenian gravitas to the wild flashes of temper.
After a short break (the poor fortepiano needed retuning after such a magnificent battering) Bezuidenhout was joined by the Edinburgh-based Ensemble Marsyas. You'd be hard-set to find better period wind playing anywhere: this group contains the superbly sensitive clarinettist Nicola Boud, the brazenly colourful horn player Alec Frank-Gemmill and is led by the stylish, nut-warm playing of bassoonist Peter Whelan. Together their sound is gorgeously elegant and congenial. Though there can't have been more than 10 keys on their instruments combined, their intonation was flawless. Beethoven's early Quintet in E-flat for piano and Winds Opus 16 can sound trite in lesser hands. Here its gentle elegance and playful poise were just right.
Gould Piano Trio
Crail Community Hall
James MacMillan's Second Piano Trio was specially co-commissioned to mark this year's 10th edition of the East Neuk Festival. The premiere was in Bath earlier this summer; for this first Scottish outing, the Gould Piano Trio paired it with an earlier MacMillan work for the same configuration.
That older work ended up eclipsing the new one. Fourteen Little Pictures (1997) is among the composer's most compelling chamber pieces, full of hot-tempered vitality and trademark MacMillan soundbites. Craggy outcrops lapse into misty, keening threnodies; the piano lays down gravelly rumbles while the strings wrestle or intertwine in long-lined laments. The title refers to the stations of the cross, and as usual with MacMillan's religious music the imagery comes in bold, passionate strokes. The work opens on an irrepressible surge and the energy never dissipates - it closes on repeated piano hammerblows, MacMillan never shy about the symbolism.
The single-movement Second Piano Trio shares many of Little Pictures' tricks, right down to that obstinate repetition. An opening motoric figure returns again and again; busy textures built from interlocking patterns cut to hushed, wispy solos. More surprising are the crazed boogie-woogie piano licks and the bittersweet waltz in eerie string harmonics. These pastiches are ear-catching but it's hard to see how they add up.
The Goulds played magnificently, bringing lively definition to the Pictures and impassioned drama to the new work (the cellist finished with a broken string, so fierce had been her attack). East Neuk's director, Svend Brown, decided that the new piece should be played twice. It was a good idea, but in practice the second hearing did an already-repetitive work no favours.