Music review: The Scottish Ensemble with Aidan O’Rourke and Kit Downes, Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

Aidan O'Rourke and Kit Downes joined the Scottish Ensemble to fascinating effect
Aidan O'Rourke and Kit Downes joined the Scottish Ensemble to fascinating effect
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SELDOM a group to play it safe with a conventional classical gig, the Scottish Ensemble collaborated for its short Elemental tour with trad violinist and composer Aidan O’Rourke and jazz keyboardist Kit Downes, in programmes that collided together uncompromising, somewhat monumental modernism with far more tender, thoughtful contributions from the two guest musicians. It made for a fascinating, if sometimes slightly jarring, combination of styles – and, it has to be said, quite a lot of stage-shifting between pieces.

The Scottish Ensemble with Aidan O’Rourke and Kit Downes, Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh ****

O’Rourke and Downes’s selection from their double album 365 were fresh and supple, the violinist drifting nimbly in and out of folk-style tunes with subtle support from Downes’s marshmallowy harmonium. The concert’s climax, the newly commissioned, Edwin Morgan-inspired There is no beginning – co-written by O’Rourke and Downes for themselves plus the Ensemble – felt rather anticlimactically like more of the same, its elusive, switchback tunes now simply spread across a broader canvas, and the string ensemble mostly relegated to an accompaniment role.

It was the concert’s dogged modernism that really stood out, from the slithering micropolyphony of Ligeti’s opening Ramifications, given an assured, unshowy, beautifully transparent account, to the intricately layered cross-rhythms of Tansy Davies’s foot-tapping The beginning of the world, all under the clear, precise leadership of guest director Simon Blendis, who also delivered some usefully informative introductions. Best of the lot was David Fennessy’s remarkable, St Kilda-inspired Hirta Rounds, whose cascade of ringing open strings and glistening harmonics was summoned by ever-shifting leaders from within the scattered players, all coalescing into something rich and wonderfully strange.

DAVID KETTLE