Review: East Neuk’s Schubertiad

First published in the Guardian on 8 July, 2014

Crail Church, Fife

It isn’t every composer whose music could withstand six hours of concerts in one day; what is it about Schubert that makes us want to linger so long? Over the centuries, the Schubertiad tradition has morphed from the sort of boozy, freewheeling ceilidhs that he himself hosted into polite all-day marathons like this one, staged by the East Neuk Festival to celebrate its tenth anniversary. The programme here sighed under towering late works preoccupied with mortality, and what emerged through the afternoon was a tender, largely solemn, at times very painful portrait of this most human of composers. Had Schubert himself been throwing the party, I wonder whether he would have insisted on a bit of light relief.

Inevitably there were daft and maddening moments among the profundity. Even a viola player as fine as Krzysztof Chorlzelski couldn’t smooth over the most skittish passages in the Arpeggione Sonata, and I longed for a more simple Du bist die Ruh from soprano Malin Christensson; her voice had beautifully dark hues and her way with text was admirably ardent, but in Crail’s plain kirk there was no need to inflate. Llyr Williams sculpted the four Impromptus D899 into clean, handsome lines, but where was the playfulness of the E-flat and A-flat numbers? On a pragmatic note, scheduling the hefty Trio in B-flat D898 just before dinner didn’t earn the audience focus deserved by this intense, fervid performance from Corina Belcea, Antoine Lederlin and Christian Zacharias.

Three highlights from the day, then. The Gould Piano Trio opened proceedings with a resplendent, big-boned take on the Trio in E flat D929, all grand gestures and feisty attack. The Belcea Quartet’s Rosamunde was the opposite – an urgent, eerie performance full of silvery, stripped-back, mercurial sounds. To close the day, Zacharias played a monumental account of Schubert’s last piano sonata, the B-flat major D960. Raging with life, full of resolve, here was all of Schubert’s emotional gamut, from obsession to whimsy, stoicism to utter collapse. Devastating.