East Neuk festival – review

Various venues, Fife

It's only seven years old, but this is a festival that knows what it's about and does it well. Don't go expecting what they won't have: the programming is unflinchingly trad (in five days of chamber concerts, there were only three pieces written after 1900), and the festive element is kept understated – just a bit of bunting and an oversized bust of Beethoven moulded out of sand. But the tiny church venues dotted around the East Neuk's fishing villages are classy in a soft-spoken, east-of-Scotland kind of way. The festival's ethos suits its landscape nicely.

Evidently, the formula works for musicians as well as audiences, because this year earned a string of strikingly intimate performances. A contingent of keyboard players were the backbone: Richard Egarr, dressed in a T-shirt and wrestling his way through a strangely shambolic, hugely touching harpsichord performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations; Christian Zacharias's muscular, uncompromising late-period Brahms and Beethoven; and, the most revelatory, Aleksandar Madžar's tender, vulnerable and deeply lyrical Bach Partitas.

Two excellent young string quartets inevitably attracted comparison. The Elias played Beethoven and Mendelssohn with powerful grit and rough, human edges; the Ebène, from France, played Mozart and Debussy with shimmering, borderline-cocksure brilliance. Their performance of Beethoven's Op 131 was fascinating: intense and urgent, yet coated with that same blithe sheen. It was their Scottish debut, and arguably the festival's highlight.

There is still some room for growth. Artistic director Svend Brown talks of developing a literary element, and of commissioning new work, which would be welcome. But the only concert this year that seemed commonplace, and therefore out of place, was the biggest – a meandering Scottish Chamber Orchestra programme of Bach, Adams, Ives, Schubert and Vaughan Williams in St Andrews' Younger Hall. Clearly for this festival, small is beautiful.


Kate Molleson

The GuardianTramp

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