Music review: Scottish Fiddle Festival, The Pleasance, Edinburgh ****

Mike Vass PIC: John Devlin
Mike Vass PIC: John Devlin
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Not quite the thing for a fiddle to be smashed on stage – and at a fiddle festival too. The symbolic instrument-bashing, however, came during The Four Pillars, Mike Vass’s commission for Friday’s opening concert of the Scots Fiddle Festival, referring to the old tune De’il Stick the Minister which commemorated an infamously fiddle-phobic cleric.

Multi-instrumentalist Vass (who assured us the assaulted instrument had been non-serviceable), created a multi-media celebration of the fiddler’s art, highlighting its four “pillars” of slow air, march, strathspey and reel, presented by exponents Lauren MacColl, Jenna Reid, Patsy Reid and himself, backed by pianist Tom Gibbs, Iain Sandilands on vibes and a string quartet.

Preceded by film of the four players discussing their music, the piece was punctuated by archive recordings of past masters talking and playing, some pithy Shetland and north-east dialect sounding down the years.

There was much engaging solo and ensemble playing as Vass’s new compositions responded to these fragments from the past, although the interspersing of performance with these recorded snippets, with Vass hovering stage-side, somewhat self-consciously controlling operations, inevitably gave a stop-start feel rather than a sense of flow.

Standout moments included superb slow airs from MacColl over the string quartet’s pastoral drift and Patsy Reid bringing a dark elegance to Vass’s slow strathspey, vibes chiming ethereally.

An encore featured Vass’s lyrical music from his Wake of Neil Gunn project, and there was fine turbulence also from fiddle sprite Ryan Young, in empathetic partnership with guitarist Jenn Butterworth, their set launching concert and festival on the headiest of notes as they ebbed and flowed between hauntingly melancholic airs and all-out reels.

Butterworth reappeared in Saturday night’s concert as part of the zesty and inventive Kinnaris Quintet, her

guitar joined by Laura-Beth Salter’s mandolin and the three fiddles of Laura Wilkie, Fiona MacAskill and Aileen Gobbi.

From the first, rich-toned murmurings of Gobbi’s five-stringed instrument, a largely high-energy set saw fiddles darting and intertwining over the flicker and thrum of guitar and mandolin, while gentler interludes included the delicate ringing of mandolin in June’s Garden, before pedal hit metal once again.

Saltfishforty seemed a slightly odd choice to follow. This affable duo of fiddler Douglas Montgomery and guitarist and singer Brian Cromarty, cornerstones of Orkney’s folk revival, had a boisterous energy of their own, although when they deployed their electronic stomp board, finesse tended to go out the window.

The audience responded delightedly, however, as the pair mingled traditional material such as a nice trio of fiddle tunes associated with the late Hugh Inkster with their own compositions, including the exuberant Hot Club pastiche of their Tabasco Twist, and Cromarty’s song The Jack Snipe, about a maritime tragedy.

Perhaps the most heartening aspect of the evening, however, was the 14 youngsters of the festival’s newly introduced Youth Engagement Project, led by Adam Sutherland, whose brief set gave much promise for the future, not least in their sensitive handling of that benchmark of fiddler’s musicality, the slow air. - Jim Gilchrist