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The Routes Quartet The Routes Quartet
Album: Windrose
Label: Routes
Tracks: 9

Members of the Glasgow-based ensemble The Routes Quartet (who come from Scotland, Ireland and England), all have to some extent a background in traditional folk music. In terms of its highly specific instrumental complement, though, The Routes Quartet can be regarded as a string quartet. This is a standard, and pre-eminent, combination (two violins, a viola and a cello) that’s regarded as traditional in the sphere of classical music, and tends to have something of a reputation for highbrow austerity (unjustified in my opinion). It has an established repertoire that contains some of the unarguably greatest compositions ever written, sublime and beautiful yet often rigorously disciplined musical creations that can present a serious (and yet intensely rewarding) challenge to the listener. So the listener who is well versed in the classical repertoire, however open-minded, will inevitably come to this disc with a certain amount of preconception and expectation regarding the musical content of its menu. And since the string quartet grouping brings with it its own mindset and conventions, the pieces on this disc may be thought to demand a different mindset for listening. They engage, but on a different plane; this may be lighter, but that doesn’t signify a lack of serious intent or purpose, or indeed structure – although the intense structuring (and formality) of the classical quartet form, even in its more exploratory or modern-day manifestations, is basically absent here.

A majority of the music played by The Routes Quartet is self-penned by quartet members: cellist Rufus Huggan and viola player Emma Tomlinson have composed two tracks each, and violinists Gráinne Brady and Tricia Mullan one apiece. These are informed by folk models rather than slavishly adhering to them, and the resonances work both ways – The Gentleman’s Farewell could almost be a melody found in an 18th century tunebook, and The Quartz Jig courts the realm of pastiche rather in the manner of a bucolic dance by Malcolm Arnold but sidesteps that particular dance-floor, whereas Portabello Waves (part of intriguingly conjoined final track On Land And Sea) takes a more imaginative view. Closest to the traditional dance form model are the brace of pairings of frisky, far-from-straight-laced tunes contributed by Rufus.

On the remainder of the disc, two pieces are arrangements of music from a traditional source; the delectable Trinkamp features some hand-clapping offsetting the tune’s syncopations. Another tune comes from the pen of Brian Finnegan, while there’s a pair of retreat marches by John MacKay and Niel Gow that actually feel neo-classical in origin in this scoring for string quartet (as opposed to folk-fiddle/s – even though the second tune is Cam Ye O’er From France under another name, Key To The Cellar). The emotional core of the CD, however, is almost certainly the heartfelt rendition of the magnificent, atmospheric, almost cinematic tune by Kathryn Tickell, Fenham (which I’d not heard since her Common Ground album).

Fittingly, the Routes Quartet’s debut album was recorded live in the conducive acoustic of a chapel at Drimnin on the Scottish west coast (home of the otters after which Rufus’s playful tune-set is named, no doubt), and co-produced by acclaimed Scottish fiddler Patsy Reid. Windrose (in a way, like the recent album of Folk Songs involving the famous Kronos Quartet, but here in a wholly instrumental context) shows that the intimate tonalities of classical chamber music aren’t in fact alien to those which can be conjured by folk music. It’s a genuinely rejuvenating experience that fairly exudes both energy and delicacy.

David Kidman