What do you get when you combine a consummate classical technique, an intuition for traditional music from a variety of cultures, imaginative arrangements, a phenomenal memory and stunning virtuosity? Well, you get the Kosmos Ensemble, a remarkable group of three young musicians who present programmes of world music, with an emphasis on Eastern European folk music and South American dance music. The Kosmos Ensemble have appeared in Inverness a couple of times, and although this was their first visit to Music Nairn, their reputation had gone before them, and they were greeted with a large and enthusiastic audience.
The programme consisted of a selection of toe-tapping numbers with a variety of Eastern European flavours - the highlight of the first half for me was a powerful hymn-like Serbian number, which the group's violinist Harriet Mackenzie introduced with some poignant poetic verses to set the scene. Whirling Romanian dances, brooding Moldovan melodies, Gypsy music and more exotic Greek and Turkish flavours demanded an intriguing variety of techniques from the players, including some remarkably dynamic variation from button accordionist Milos Milivojevic ranging from thundering bass notes to chirping upper registers. On occasion all three players used their instruments to provide percussive effects, while both Harriet Mackenzie and viola player Meg Hamilton occasionally chopped aggressively at their respective instruments.
As the evening progressed, the group moved from traditional music and set pieces such as the famous Monti Csardas, Sarasate's Zigeunerweisen and Piazolla's Libertango, albeit in distinctive Kosmos arrangements, to more intriguing cultural blends, or 'Kosmos cocktails' as the group refer to them. We had John Williams' theme from Schindler's List interweaving with a Sephardic-like improvisation, South American tango music with Greek flavouring, and finally a quick world tour starting in England with Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending, passing through Europe with Hungarian music redolent with twittering birds and the Bach D-minor Fugue and snippets of other avian material, including Saint-Saëns' Swan before this remarkable medley ended in a swirl of virtuosity. Having spent hours of my youth in Hungarian restaurants in and around Budapest soaking up the music of the gypsy bands playing there, as well as occasionally myself taking to exotic wind instruments such as the Hungarian/Romanian Taragot and the Armenian Duduk, I am probably predisposed to the music of Eastern Europe, but its irregular rhythms, exotic scales and darkly ardent melodies seem to hold a fascination for most listeners. This was certainly the case with the Music Nairn audience who were mesmerised!
All three musicians in the Ensemble are classically trained, and much of the success of their distinctive offering relies on a cutting edge technique on their respective instruments. It is no surprise that all three pursue parallel careers as classical soloists, but the work they are doing with the Kosmos Ensemble is important, distinctive and in many ways unique. There was not a note of printed music in sight in their performance, and it was clear from their introductions that although an imaginative musical arrangement lay at the heart of each piece, there was a strong element of improvisation in everything. That this always sounded fresh, exciting and above all convincing is the result of three remarkable musical imaginations working together with a flawless rapport.