“the standard of playing remains remarkably high …all the more commendable in the main work that was technically very demanding in terms of phrasing, notation and timing.”
The Edinburgh Quartet are skilful not only in their playing but in their approach to their constituency. Their 2016/17 series is a combination of daytime, rush hour and evening sets in order to reach new listeners and move away from the relative predictability and, for some, the difficulty of getting to evening gigs. Each season, or part of season, has a theme, and this season’s theme is vested in their Scottish roots. Tuesday’s concert programme contained works inspired by the island of Skye and the actual words of Robbie Burns. Informal in approach within the relaxing environs of St Andrew’s and St George’s West in Edinburgh, the occasion is probably more accurately described as an informal lecture recital rather than a concert, and none the worse for that.
Cleverly, the band started with a brief introductory piece, demanding in intonation and timing, which they played without music. Gordon Bragg then interviewed composer Alasdair Nicolson who spoke of the inspiration behind his String Quartet No 3, “Slanting Rain”, which was the centrepiece of the evening. After that Mairi Campbell, guest musician and one of two violists in the opening number, spoke of her love of the Scottish dance and folk music idiom and her approach to her music.
On to the main event. “Slanting Rain” is a six movement work full of chromatics, a wide variety of bowing techniques, harmonics and dissonance. It is a difficult play, and not an easy listen. I did think that the advanced technical construction of the work got in the way of its musicality. The introduction to the fourth movement, “Impossibly distant tree lined paths”, treated us to a melodic introduction by EQ Apprentice Competition winner Morag Robertson on viola, and the sixth movement, “Into an abyss made of time”, was a very clever melange of time signatures and orchestration that definitely worked.
The evening drew to a conclusion with a deeply moving rendition of a Robbie Burns poem sung and played by Mairi Campbell, followed by James MacMillan’s “Memento”.
Those familiar with the Edinburgh Quartet’s line up would have noticed some new faces, some planned, some drafted in at the last moment. Tristan Gurney has left and the first Violin chair is currently being recruited for. Tonight’s locum was taken ill on the morning of the concert, and Gordon Bragg nobly took on the first violin part, bringing in Rachel Spencer on second violin. Morag Robertson will take the viola desk for the first part of the season while Fiona Winning remains on maternity leave. Mark Bailey remains at the cello desk. All these changes notwithstanding, the standard of playing remains remarkably high and, astonishingly, the cohesion of the band appears completely unaffected, as if they had all being playing together for years, all the more commendable in the main work that was technically very demanding in terms of phrasing, notation and timing.
Reviewer: Charles Stokes (Seen 25 October)
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