Neuk, or nook, is a Scottish word for corner, and there are few musical corners of the UK as remote from the metropolitan hubbub as East Neuk on the Fife coast, while remaining so geographically close to it. Since 2004 a handful of small, picturesque towns have hosted a five-day chamber music bash that combines a pithy sense of locale with international standards – giving East Neuk true festival status in a musical market-place full of imposters.
Like all thriving festivals, East Neuk faces a dilemma: whether or not to expand. Its meagre public subsidy has stayed the same for six years and its venues – some of Scotland’s prettiest Presbyterian churches – impose a limit on size. But the audience has trebled as the number of events has grown, and includes a solid core of generous supporters. East Neuk’s artistic director, the quietly charismatic Svend Brown, has now located a promising venue on the tumbledown Cambo estate, home to the Erskine family, and plans to celebrate the festival’s 10th birthday in 2014 with an expanded two-weekend programme, including a small opera staging. That’s a huge development for Scotland, which has no country house opera, but Brown must somehow grow the budget by 50 per cent.
In Kilrenny Church I heard Thomas Carroll’s solo cello recital, framing Dutilleux’s Trois Strophes sur le nom de Sacher with Bach’s first and second cello suites. What came across in Carroll’s deft, darkly resonant performances was the sense of purpose shared by two craftsman-composers across 250 years – each deploying his own language to express a similar range of fantastical musings.
No visit to East Neuk is complete without a Christian Zacharias recital: the German pianist helped found the festival and is a guarantor of its standards. In Crail Church he shared the bill with the polite, verging-on-insipid Elias Quartet – challenging them to express themselves in the chamber version of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 12 in A, and offering a masterclass of reason, temperament, imagination and integrity in his majestic rendition of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 12. That alone would have been worth travelling to the furthest corner of the land.