Music review: Alba New Music Festival

While Nicola Benedetti was packing out the Usher Hall, across town a brand new Edinburgh festival was quietly being born. Alba New Music is a recently founded charity committed to championing contemporary sounds, and their two-day inaugural festival filled St Giles' Cathedral with some of the most complex works of recent years, in a canny programme focused around three remarkable solo performers. Uncompromising, sometimes maddening, frequently impenetrable, it also provided some breathtakingly virtuosic performances of bristlingly individual music that rarely gets an airing north of the border.

Alba New Music Festival ****

St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh

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The eloquent intricacies of Wieland Hoban’s magical Knockler, the opener in guitarist Diego Castro Magas’s striking opening recital, got rather lost in the Cathedral’s resonant acoustic, but that was more than made up for by his masterful playing and effects-pedalling in Richard Barrett’s Transmission, whose surround-sound electronics engulfed the audience with joyfully cacophonous layers of noise. The following afternoon, James Dillon’s febrile Sgothan sent flurries of notes ricocheting around St Giles’ walls in flautist Richard Craig’s theatrical concert, which ended with one of the “new complexity” movement’s cornerstones, Brian Ferneyhough’s Unity Capsule, in an account more like a dramatic soliloquy than a musical performance. That evening, in her exquisite recital soprano Peyee Chen included two witty, self-interrupting Récitations by Georges Aperghis, as well as the fractured folk of Jennifer Walshe’s ukelele-accompanied “Three Songs” by Ukeoirn O’Connor.

There are ways Alba New Music can refine their offering for a broader audience – less abstruse programme notes would make this forbidding music more friendly, for example. But it was a rich, rewarding weekend, unapologetically challenging, but pulled off with panache.