There is a pleasing symmetry to the Edinburgh Quartet’s four distinct concert types: Edinburgh University lunchtime concerts; city-centre Rush Hour Concerts, often featuring readings from texts contemporaneous with the programme; formal evening concerts, with intervals; one-hour Late Sessions, often in unusual venues, whose informal nature aims to attract those outside classical music’s embrace.

This particular event took place in the Anatomy Lecture Theatre of one of Edinburgh’s more recent arts venues, Summerhall. Knowing that it was, from 1916–2011 the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, the idea of an an anatomy lecture theatre seems less bizarre. Seated at one end of the first of four steeply raked semicircles of audience seats was James MacMillan, Edinburgh Quartet patron and sole featured composer of a series of three Late Sessions, of which this was the first. Indeed, MacMillan introduced the evening, providing valuable and, in some cases, otherwise unguessable pointers which certainly enhanced my enjoyment of a first hearing of both works.

The opening item, HB to MB for solo cello had its 2004 première in another unusual venue, the House of Lords. The soloist on that occasion was Raphael Wallfisch, and the birthday dedicatee Michael Berman. The soloist here was another MB, the Edinburgh Quartet's own cellist Mark Bailey.

As pointed out in the introductory remarks, Scottish folk music has increasingly become a part of MacMillan’s lexicon and this was evident from the pentatonic opening. The mood here, captured finely by Bailey, was an odd one; part lament, part feelgood – a counterintuitive combination, but frequently found in “the blues”. The “HB” part of the title is the German nomenclature for the notes B and B flat, and I suspect that this pairing might have contributed to the folky/bluesy feel. However, this three-minute solo did far more than establish and enjoy a groove. The plaintive opening soon yielded to much more frenetic playing before Bailey treated us to a whirlwind tour of textures and techniques including harmonics, tremolando, pizzicato and octaves. The last of these reclothed the opening material, giving a readily perceived circularity to the work. Bailey’s strong, warm tone was given additional life by this venue’s very lively acoustic. This was a fine performance with which MacMillan and the audience seemed very pleased.

The remainder of the quartet then squeezed into the snug performance area where many quadrupeds must have poured out their hearts in the interest of medical science. The highly charged acoustic here struck me as ideal for the quartet medium. The remaining work of the evening was MacMillan’s Visions of a November Spring (1988, rev. 1991). On first seeing the title I wondered if, given religion’s central place in the composer’s life, it might be an oblique reference to the expectational season of Advent. However, it was explained as being a purely autobiographical reference, celebrating the young MacMillan’s increasing creative confidence and output.

Its two movements merge two important influences at the time. The first is Polish modernism, particularly Lutosławski and Penderecki, with whose music he became familiar while studying with John Casken. This came across especially in the short first movement which, centring on the note D, spreads outwards to E flat and C sharp before exploring the microtones in between. The tension inherent in this narrow sound world was put across very well. Breathtaking relief from such localism of pitch came in the form of fantastic, vigorous chords, put across with electrifying conviction.

The second influence is Scottish folk music, notably Gaelic psalm, the most striking feature of which is the time-delay caused by the congregation following the Precentor’s vocal lead. These passages were unmistakable and hauntingly played. In the closing Q&A I was lucky enough to ask MacMillan why the pitch of psalmic-influenced passages was so much higher than congregational pitch. He spoke clearly of his approach to tradition which, rather than seeking merely to quote, allows personal, temporal and contextual factors to come into play. I couldn't help noting that, in discussion, MacMillan spoke in perfect prose.

There were significant and dramatically delivered solo passages for Bailey’s cello and Jessica Beatson’s viola. Equally impressive were moments of vigorous team virtuosity, all the more impressive given the absence of obvious pulse in much of the piece.

In addition to the Celtic influence there was another style which, odd as it sounds to say it, simply sounded European, without specific locale. This was at its most touching in a passage where violins and viola played some lovely harmony, underpinned by a separatist cello.

The intimate and unusual venue, the composer’s presence, the Q&A and the wonderful playing made for a thoroughly enjoyable hour and confirm this quartet as one with audience attraction and engagement at its core.