Now in its fifteenth year, the East Neuk Festival has established itself as one of the leading festivals in Scotland and has acquired an international reputation too. Every year, director Svend McEwan-Brown and his team assemble a glittering programme of top-quality chamber musicians to delight audiences who travel to Fife from all over Britain to be there. Yet, it remains a very local festival, situating itself in local churches and halls, and it is run by many enthusiastic volunteers, the Festival only having a small number of full-time staff. Its big venue is Bowhouse, a converted barn near Anstruther that is normally a food distribution centre. This year, they turn the stage around and the musicians play in front of a stack of large wooden vegetable boxes, which gives a really warm resonance to their music.
The fourth concert of the Bowhouse series (four stars) is given by Camerata Janiczek, a collaboration between soloists Alec Frank-Gemmill and Alexander Janiczeck, and tonight they have a small chamber orchestra of around fifteen musicians. Frank-Gemmill is an amazingly talented young horn player who was a member of the BBC New Generation Artists scheme from 2014-16, and since then he has become a regular soloist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and others. Tonight he is playing a baroque horn, which produces very different sounds from the modern valve horn. He seems to be having major problems with his horn: it is constantly needing to be emptied and in the final work, Mozart’s horn concerto in E-flat K. 495, it seems to be out of tune, particularly towards the climax of the concerto. It may be being affected by the heavy thunderous atmosphere around the Bowhouse, with thunder, lightning and heavy rain intruding on the music at times.
The concert begins with another Mozart work, the Adagio and Fugue in C-minor, K. 546, beautifully played by the orchestra under the direction of Janiczeck on the violin. Next is Mozart’s horn concerto in E-flat K. 417, and Frank-Gemmill seems to have his horn more under control, the lovely melodies of the concerto flowing sweetly. This is followed by Handel’s Concerto Grosso in A, Op. 6 No. 11, which proves a perfect vehicle for demonstrating the wind and string sections of the orchestra.
Finally, we have the second Mozart horn concerto with the wobbly horn. Clearly, baroque instruments can produce a different and historically authentic sound, but at times they are just not on the note. Svend McEwan-Brown, in his programme notes, says Mozart used to insult his horn player saying, “get at least one note in tune Blockhead”! Frank-Gemmill gets most notes in tune but some are definitely not! Nevertheless, the big crowd gives the concert a warm reception, and we head out into the rain to find Anstruther’s famous fish and chips before the next concert!
Later that night, we have the fifth concert in the Bowhouse series (five stars). It is very special, featuring two of the leading string quartets in Europe (both old friends of the festival) teaming up to play string quartets, before joining forces to perform Mendelssohn’s sublime Octet. The Belcea Quartet begins the concert with Haydn’s Quartet in G, Op. 33 No. 5. Although one might think of the Belcea as a “young” string quartet, they have been around for twenty-five years, having been formed at the Royal College of Music in 1994. They became known for their championing of new music and their cross-cultural links, but tonight they prove they can play the classics just as well. The Haydn Quartet is a lively festive work written for the Grand Duke Paul of Russia and they play it with great verve and fun.
The second quartet, played by the Pavel Haas Quartet is a very different work, Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 in C-minor, Op. 110. The Pavel Haas Quartet has been called “the world’s most exciting string quartet” by the Gramophone, are in demand all over the world, and return to the Edinburgh International Festival this year. Their performance of the Shostakovitch brings out the darkness of the work, which was written in 1959 when Shostakovitch was very depressed.
The final work involves combining both quartets, and they play Mendelssohn’s amazing Octet written in 1825 when Mendelssohn was only sixteen! As McEwan-Brown writes in his programme notes, “it conveys more sheer joy per bar than any other piece of music I know”. The combined quartets produce a ravishing sound, which sends us out into the darkening skies in a festive mood. The East Neuk festival had triumphed again, and they have already announced some bookings for next year’s festival .