Review: Calidore String Quartet, East Neuk Festival 2016

Calidore String Quartet
The Arts Desk

All the best festivals develop organically, with a guiding hand from the best directors. When I first came to the East Neuk Festival two years ago, on its 10th anniversary, it was already a special case, thriving on the spirit of place and including an all-day Schubertiad from top international artists, many of whom were returning because they loved this special peninsula of the Fife coast so much. Since then a weekly "Retreat" for outstanding young artists guided by superlative coaches has started yielding unmissable special concerts, and beloved visitors have come for longer, three- or four-day residencies.
East Neuk's main man, Svend Brown, doesn't make a thing of themes: no Shakespeare this year, and the centenary of the Battle of the Somme was commemorated only due to another of the festival's special commissions involving the community, Pulitzer Prize winning David Lang's Memorial Ground. Instead, there is a fluent connection between concerts. Mendelssohn was one focus, with the young Americans of the Calidore String Quartet returning after last year's revelatory (for me) performance of his last, anguished F minor Quartet to feature all six over three concerts. He was companioned by composers who influenced him – Bach – and who were influenced by him – Schumann, who then took over the reins in two later concerts – and the elegiac quality continued in the commemorative Somme concert (pictured below: Paul Hillier rehearsing local choristers in Memorial Ground).
After one of last year's highlights, Retreat musicians' perfect and sophisticated performance of Mendelssohn's Octet, arrival halfway through the festival to catch the second and last of their successors' concerts this year was essential. Rewarded, too, by more sheer perfection in the shape of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht under the guidance of the Belcea Quartet's Krzysztof Chorzelski, taking the role of second viola.
The sheer charisma of the firsts in each department drove home what an opera for sextet Schoenberg's furious-tender music-drama truly is. Though it's essentially about the woman of Richard Dehmel's poem who's forgiven by her lover for being pregnant with another man's child, there are three rather than two taxing main roles – for soprano (violinist Savitri Grier), mezzo (viola-player Diyang Mei, pictured below at Retreat rehearsal) and tenor (cellist Laura van der Heijden). Their anguished and, ultimately, transfigured singing was perfectly integrated into a unified and surely unsurpassable interpretation of spellbinding dynamic extremes.
But then so, too, were the other main chamber performances. The Calidores' Mendelssohn introduced me to masterpieces I should have heard live long before this. The first in order of composition was the E flat Quartet, easily the most profound work ever composed by a teenager: perfectly poised and voiced here with the special role for the viola underlined in advance by a brilliant talk from Richard Wigmore, illustrated by the Calidores. Mendelssohn's special brand of joy, in the shape of the D major Quartet Op. 44 No. 1, came as much-needed relief at the end of a long, intense day, following on the heels of Christian Zacharias's lucid, centred but hyper-intense readings of Schumann's Op. 111 Phantasiesstücke and the numbers of Kreisleriana tumbling into one another with no breaks.
As for the Calidores' grand finale, the searing tragedy of the final quartet composed between the death of Mendelssohn's sister Fanny and his own broke our hearts even more decisively than in last year's revelatory performance. There is some respite here in the elegiac Adagio, but the Calidores (pictured below in Kilrenny) tore through the rest without much pause between movements as if possessed.Calidore string quartet
Sorry indeed not to have caught the other three quartets in the series, I found myself a "demi-cyclist": leaving behind half of Opera North's Ring cycle for this unmissable experience, catching only half of the Mendelssohn series. I'd also like to have heard young German pianist Joseph Moog's first two concerts. His big solo recital kicked off the exhausting day with the high noon of Tchaikovsky's colossal Grande Sonata, cleverly flanked by Mozart's D minor Fantasia - its opening arpeggios among the most futuristic sounds of the 18th century - and Debussy's L'Isle Joyeuse, dancing in grand style. Moog is a pianist very much in Zacharias's mould, producing a grounded, centred, full tone with orchestral resonance in the lower depths, but he's capable of refined sensitivity too, poetically displayed in the encore, Rachmaninov's bitter-sweet Etude-Tableau Op. 33 No. 8. A perfect gentleman to have at a festival, too, an enthusiastic talker who convinced me at the lunch afterwards to go and listen to Reger's Piano Concerto which he'd just played in Germany.

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