Given how often I chastise Edinburgh audiences for not showing up for adventurous programming, it was gratifying to see a pretty full Usher Hall for the Kronos Quartet. This did not seem, though, to be quite the traditional festival audience - it was a lot younger for a start. Clearly the Kronos Quartet have a wide following outside of traditional classical music, begging the question of whether there is a way to draw the one into the other and vice versa.
But enough of that, how about the concert? The Usher Hall was as dimly lit as I've seen it, with the quartet's stools set out in the centre of the stage and tightly boxed in by rectangles of light. You couldn't have read your programme if you'd wanted to - it forced the focus firmly onto the music.
They began with Aleksandra Vrebalov's ... hold me, neighbor, in this storm... and from the offset they showed that they're one of those ensembles who almost deserve the moniker of annoyingly talented, by which I mean that not only did they play their violins, violas and cellos superbly but also drums, cymbals, their own voices and more. It began with violinist John Sherba beating a big drum, or tapan, and David Harrington bowing on an unusual lute-like instrument - a gusle. Vrebalov is a native of the former Yukoslavia and the piece was vividly evocative of the place, mingling in bells and spoken word, sounding at times like a call to prayer. The result was intense.
This leads to another point about the quartet. They blend live performance with taped sounds in the backgound. Sometimes these are vocal effect or bells, at others full string playing leading to multiple layers beyond that which a quartet could produce alone on the stage. To say that these are superbly balanced and integrated would be an understatement. Indeed, in their talk earlier in the day, the quartet revealed that they are actually five: they will not perform without their own sound engineer (Scott Fraser). One can see, or rather hear, why.
If anything, their second piece, Steve Reich's Different Trains raised the level still further. I love music based on trains, Michael Nyman's fabulous Musique a Grande Vitesse being a prime example, and Different Trains evoked some similar feelings. It was equally vivid and here the integration with the recorded elements was even more effective, the driving rhythms pulling you across America and Europe's railways. The spoken words added to the dramatic impact. True, they weren't always clear the first time, but they were hypnotically repeated and always sank in in the end.
You might not have thought it possible, but they raised the bar still further in the second half. The stage was reset and as they entered their instruments hung from the ceiling. Throughout George Crumb's Black Angels they moved around the stage, sometimes playing in tight spotlights spaced along the front, at others clustering together at one and other's stands, sometimes rehanging their instruments and moving to play different ones, such as bowed symbols or rattles. This was the most challenging piece of the evening, particularly with its discordant opening which felt furiously angry at times, heightened by the red lighting in Devil-Music. Indeed, the lighting throughout was subtle and well judged (credit to Laurence Neff). And yet, while it was the most challenging piece (occasioning a couple of walkouts - actually the level was surprisingly low considering, say, how many left during Messiaen's From the Canyons to the Stars a few years back), it was also the most rewarding for those who stayed. So intense that in the quieter moments you could have heard a pin drop. It wasn't all angular and disjointed though - one sublimely beautiful section recalled to me gregorian chanting. These, on paper, disparate elements seemed to fit perfectly together. At the climax, three of the quartet climbed onto podiums and uncovered something the identity of which had been a questionmark since the start of the gig: cloth covers were lifted to reveal wine glasses which they then proceeded to play. Beautifully illuminated from beneath, they helped to ensure a spellbindingly soft ending.
To say the Usher Hall went wild would be something of an understatement. They were rapturously received, and deservedly so. Cellist @PeterGregson (who has clearly been strongly influence by this incredible ensemble) tweeted afterwards that it was the best thing he'd ever seen. I don't know that I'd go quite that far: I think once you get to a certain level separating out the best is an impossibility. What I will say, with absolute certainty, is it's one of the very greatest things I've ever heard in concert, at the Edinburgh international festival or, indeed, anywhere else.
David Harrington then spoke. They had never, he said, played an encore after Black Angels in 37 years, but then they'd never played the festival before. You could tell why and regular readers will know my feelings on this, but in picking Clint Mansell's Death is the road to awe from the film The Fountain (actually not, in my view, a very good film, but at least now I know why I liked the soundtrack so much), they found one that worked in the context, starting softly and building to a fabulous climax.
This was a masterstroke of programming by the Edinburgh festival and director Jonathan Mills and, in closing, I can do no better than to quote what the Queen's Hall said on twitter:
Been waiting 24 years to see @kronosquartet and they didn't disappoint. More. Soon. Please.
In the meantime, my Spotify playlist based on their set can be found here.