East Neuk Festival

Fergus McCreadie Trio

Benjamin Baker/Sean Shibe/Daniel Lebhardt

Bowhouse, by St Monans, Fife

Keith Bruce


THE artistic director of East Neuk Festival, Svend McEwan-Brown, has not been reticent in expressing his opinion of the double standards in pandemic regulations that indulge sports events but punish cultural ones, but equally he has risen to the challenges of the limitations placed on his festival with some inspired responses.

On Friday evening in the grounds of Kellie Castle, 20 very young brass players joined some adult professionals from The Wallace Collection to perform a piece entitled Ebb & Flow that celebrates the sea on their doorstep. They may have had to rehearse their festival debut online and had never convened as a group before the day of the work’s premiere, but infectious enthusiasm knocked the restrictions imposed by viral contagion out the park.

On Saturday morning the festival showcased the film-making it has undertaken during lockdown in Anstruther’s Dreel Halls, with beautifully-crafted recordings of top-flight musicians performing for the camera in some of the East Neuk’s lovely venues. All of these are available to watch free via the festival’s website until August 1 and some of the same players could be seen performing live for socially-distanced audiences in this year’s programme of live recitals in the Bowhouse.

Two rather different trios of musicians played on Friday night and Saturday morning. Jazz pianist Fergus McCreadie and his rhythm section of David Bowden on bass and Stephen Henderson were also ENF debutantes, and making their first live appearance anywhere since October. To cap that originality, they unveiled a box-fresh set of entirely new music, destined to be recorded this coming week for a third album to follow their hugely-acclaimed Turas and Cairn discs.

For the most part the new tunes have yet to be fitted with titles, but the second of them McCreadie has already named The Unfurrowed Field, after the opening chapter of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, That confirms that the pianist is still finding plenty fertile ground in his distinctive use of material found nearby in traditional music to explore the range of possibilities of the classic jazz line-up. It is a particularly folky dance tune, but elsewhere the influence was more subtle, as in the fifth piece, which was an achingly poignant ballad. There was a great deal of democracy in the trio’s performance, with Bowden’s bass regularly to the fore, when it was not anchoring the rhythm to allow Henderson’s tasteful embellishments full range of expression. Virtuoso at the keyboard though he is, McCreadie structures his compositions to showcase more than his own startling improvisation. He brought it all home at the end with an encore from Turas of The Old Harbour, for which the landscape of inspiration lay very close by indeed.

Guitarist Sean Shibe and violinist Benjamin Baker have both developed their practice in residencies at the East Neuk Festival and feature in this year’s film programme. At Bowhouse they were joined by Baker’s recital partner, pianist Daniel Lebhardt for a sequence of duos and one solo from Shibe that trailed his forthcoming Pentatone album, Camino.

Beginning and ending with the music of Arvo Part, Baker and Shibe played Fratres and the violinist was joined by Lebhardt for Spiegel im Spiegel. The highly versatile Baker showed himself just as comfortable in the gypsy fiddle stylings of De Falla’s Six Canciones and Bartok’s Romanian Dances, both in duo with Shibe. At the heart of the programme was a very substantial sonata for violin and piano by young English composer Matthew Kaner. Highland Scenes is a big piece, nearly 20 minutes in length, with an equal share of the spoils to both players in terms of dynamics and range. It was also a world premiere, and proof, if any was needed, that East Neuk Festival is still operating at the cutting edge.