Embodying the traditional Edinburgh Fringe’s healthy spirit of adventure, Sally Carr (soprano), Anna Michels (piano) and Calum Robertson (clarinet) should be congratulated in presenting five short programmes of thoughtful contemporary music. This recital focused on works mainly by contemporary Scottish composers featuring a specially commissioned piece by Sheena Phillips and a Scottish premiere from American Lori Laitman. It was like viewing a Scottish picture gallery, ending with us looking at ourselves in a mirror.

Calum Robertson, Anna Michels and Sally Carr © Lana Woolford
Calum Robertson, Anna Michels and Sally Carr
© Lana Woolford

Carr and Michels opened with a quiet delightful vignette To the Future by Ronald Stevenson before being joined by Robertson for three Animal Songs by John McLeod. The composer introduced them explaining that these were written in the 1970s when his music was becoming much too serious, so the rabbit with its disgraceful private life set the tone, the sloth swaying by his toes and a lovely setting of William Blake’s The Lamb. The trio performed sensitively, clarinet and piano trading rabbity phrases, bass clarinet taking the sloth off to sleep and Carr’s soft pure soprano painting a dreamy pastoral tapestry.

Stuart Murray Mitchell's Horo set a vivid seascape walk Ceòl na by Stewart Sanderson, and Jane McKie’s Contrary Bird for clarinet and soprano. Robertson created wistful pictures as Carr sang about the strange abandoned fishing boat with beautiful clarity before Robertson’s pointy disjointed sequencing suggested walking on. The short instrumental interlude was all dancing waves, calling sea birds and blowing gales before Carr joined in for the sad Contrary Bird, beautiful, ethereal and abstract, punctuated by muffled trills from the clarinet.

Ronald Centre was a shy Aberdonian who quietly composed and taught music. Michels explained that he learned composition from listening to the radio, producing works with unique sound and feel. His Piano Sonata was one of his favourite pieces, a bright sparky Allegro opening developing to a flowing grandeur, Michels relishing the bold bass lines. A pale serious Adagio descriptive of Aberdeen’s grey granite architecture was dark and slow followed by three sketches, full of warm but restless harmonies before a fugue heralded a lively 12/8 gigue, Michels dancing across the keys with spirit.

Jamie-Reid Baxter commissioned Sheena Phillips new work Un petit psaultier, two tiny poems by Esther Inglis bookending Psalm 104 which is about the wonders of creation. Inglis, the daughter of a French Huguenot refugee living in Edinburgh in the late 16th century was an expert calligrapher and embroiderer of miniature books, including psalters. Phillips was intrigued by the heady sound world of clarinet and soprano, two breaths producing incredible richness. Here, voice and clarinet intertwined like a thread in the opening Au Lecteur, Robertson creating a border of repeating patterns. The central Parmi les pseaumes began plainly, Carr chanting on a single note as Robertson’s bass clarinet ghosted the Geneva Psalter tune before the music opened up, Carr’s soprano clear, strong and joyful, declaring that she will sing Psalms for ever. A final Prière à Dieu was mesmerising, Carr mixing words with a soft humming accompaniment to a dancing clarinet and a soft open 5th ending.

James MacMillan celebrates his 60th birthday this year, recognised by the Edinburgh Festival in a series of concerts this year. Here, Michels was joined by Robertson in a sensitive performance of After the Tryst, the soft gentle broken chords on the piano giving Robertson space for growing expression and turbulence and yet quietly pulling notes from nothing.

Robertson and Carr have championed American Lori Laitman’s powerful works with success, but I was bowled over by the Scottish premiere of The Ocean of Eternity her settings of Anne Ranasinghe’s haunting, beautiful and mysterious Four Stanzas on Mortality. Ranasinghe was born to a Jewish family in Germany, witnessing Kristallnacht before being sent her to live with an aunt in England. Training as a nurse she met and married a Sri Lankan doctor, and after the war, moved with him to Sri Lanka, her poems now set texts. Laitman’s beautifully expressive music for the trio captured the thoughts of life now and what we each leave behind for future generations. Powerful and reflective by turns, they completely inhabited Laitman’s world, Carr’s soprano bursting through, engaging directly with the audience, taking us from one place and leaving us in a spellbound wonder.

****1