Saturday 7 March 2009

When was the last time you attended six world premieres in a single concert?

I'm not sure if I ever have, even at Aldeburgh, where there is no shortage of new music. Certainly in Edinburgh it is a quite exceptional quantity. The concert was given by the Edinburgh Quartet and took place in St Giles Cathedral and, best of all, was free.

The six works came from the pens of six students at Napier University's Ian Tomlin School of Music (the Edinburgh Quartet are the resident ensemble of the School). I've attended several of the Quartet's concerts at the Stockbridge Parish Church this season which I've very much enjoyed (though not got round to reviewing). Those programmes (the next is this coming Wednesday) have featured a Haydn quartet and a Mendelssohn quartet, with something more modern sandwiched in between. They have played Mendelssohn with plenty of the energy and gusto which I think he needs in a good interpretation. In the last concert they also gave a compelling reading of Bartok's third quartet.

I've said this before, but it's always hard to write about new works: one only hears them once and so must rely on the limited notes one can make. It is harder after hearing six new works in a row. Often you wish for a recording to explore further (as I do in a number of the cases from this concert). For some this may be a blessed relief, in that this review of a fifty minute concert is shorter than many of my epics reports.

First up was Steven Kelly and his Quintet in D minor, for which the Quartet were joined by saxophonist Rocio Banyuls Bertomeu (another Napier student). The saxophone lent the work an interesting texture, though the acoustic of the cathedral was not kind to it and I didn't hear it as clearly as I would have liked (even sitting close enough to read the cello part). Good then, but something to hear elsewhere to form a better judgement.

He was followed by Kirstie Hazelwood and Fall, for string quartet, so named for the American name for autumn. This satisfying work had a nicely autumnal feel to it, especially in the central fugal section.

Stuart Murray-Mitchell's Reflections, also written for string quartet, was something of a work of acoustic experimentation. In his programme note the composer talks about how it would sound different performed in another space. The more experimental sections of the work were the most interesting and worked best and it was one of the compositions I most wanted to hear again, perhaps next time in a space like the Queen's Hall.

Ailig Hunter's Geideabhal was for mezzo-soprano (Clare Brady, singing well, also a Napier student) and string quartet. There was no text, but all she sang was "Ah". This gives a clue to the nature of the work, which was rather minimalist for my taste (then again, I adore John Cage's 4"33 and many other minimalist works). His note talks about five paintings, each of a single colour, and the way the view of these changes with the light. A nice idea, but I didn't get the sense of any of that from the score.

The penultimate work, Fragments by John Eccles (and for this reason earns this review a shameless plug tag - John is a friend and the reason I knew about and attended the concert) was also for string quartet. It was also built on just a few foundations:

The piece is constructed from a very small set of musical ideas, primarily a simple four note rising phrase and a slightly longer lyrical theme based around a scale. The latter, only played by viola and 'cello, is used as a short recitative to separate the four main sections of the music.

This demonstrated just how much could be done with a very little, in contrast to the preceding work. Like some previous works, it too had a very quiet opening, but the Quartet played it better (quiet playing is always, in my view, a good test of a musician). The third section "more agitated and the music becomes more chromatic and dissonant" was particularly fine. In my admittedly biased view (and others I was with, who were similarly biased), it was the highlight of the evening.

The evening closed with Fraster Burke's Piano Quintet, with the composer taking the piano part. His note talks about the two themes being based one on a jazz and the other on a classical style and ending as one rather than it being a competition. Being a fan of both classical music and jazz, I enjoyed it, though I felt that the jazz was very much the dominant theme throughout the work.

All in all, a fascinating concert and a most enjoyable hour. I wonder if I'll ever top six....

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