Showing as part of Edinburgh International Festival Sat 21st Aug

Contemporary American composer George Crumb’s 1970 piece Black Angels, in the words of its author, “pulled in the surrounding psychological and emotional atmosphere”, which included the ongoing political turmoil in America regarding Vietnam. But if the surroundings affect the music, the music affects the surroundings; listening to Black Angels on the radio in 1973, David Harrington had the irrepressible urge to put together a quartet so he himself could play the composition, and thus the Kronos Quartet was born. Thirty-eight years, 700 commissioned pieces and almost fifty recordings later, the Kronos make their Edinburgh debut with a return to the piece that got them started, grouped together with Steve Reich’s 1988 piece Different Trains and Aleksandra Vrebalov’s …hold me, neighbor, in this storm…, both commissioned for the Kronos.

The pieces are connected thematically by the way in which past atrocities hang over them. …hold me, neighbor… fuses different Balkan sounds that, despite enriching each other, are underpinned by memories of ethnic wars in that area. Different Trains uses wailing sirens and loops of voices from Holocaust survivors scored with repetitious strings trundling on, much like the trains that led their families to concentration camps. Black Angels, with its elegant and elegiac bowed water glass sequence and gongs, even has some quotations from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. You get the feeling the performance is drawing you in for a glimpse of the vastness and emotional grandeur of all the people who have died in wars from the past, something with profound and far-reaching resonances as the occupying troops pull out of Iraq.

Beaming from the intensely effusive audience applause, Harrington informs us that in over thirty years they have never before played an encore after Black Angels, before continuing with an impromptu rendition of Clint Mansell’s ‘Death is the Road to Awe’ from the film The Fountain, much to the satisfaction of those who came to the Kronos through their chokingly emotional scores for Darren Aronofsky. But it turns out to be a stirring and appropriate number, once again on the theme of life’s transience and the way it echoes long after; as the strings build and build and come to a climax, the show will likewise linger with those who caught it.