The Barbican's Ramadan Nights festival went Caucasian last night with laurelled Azeri singer Alim Qasimov, joined by his daughter Fargana, their ensemble, and the tireless Kronos Quartet.
The Kronos started off the evening alone with a compact showcase of the restless eclecticism on which they've built a brand name. This ran from a Saddam-era Iraqi pop song with the loaded title of Oh Mother, The Handsome Man Tortures Me, through raga and Palestinian electronica, to an incongruous arrangement of Sigur Rós's Flugufrelsarinn.
For the second set, the string quartet gave over the stage to Azerbaijan's finest, who launched straight into the deep end of Azeri classical music with Mugham Bayati Shiraz. This full suite of seven pieces crossed musical vistas like a caravan, carrying the two singers — Alim and his daughter — through a dizzying range of moods as they swapped pithy 16th century couplets. The words, which the Barbican wisely offered in translation above the stage, spoke of the desolation of lost love; the incomparable voices of Qasimov and Qasimova carried in every note the fear of isolation which only the far reaches of the Caucasus can inspire.
Following the interval, both ensembles finally took their places together for the première of their ongoing collaboration. The Kronos Quartet have played with artists from Hangzhou to Nunavut, and their role is often as a bridge between very alien musical forms and audiences raised on violins and cellos. Tonight, there was no need. Mugham songs are fashioned from pure emotion; all the melancholy, despair, and moments of glorious strength came across loud and clear. Here, the quartet simply served to fill in the sound, elevating the thin strains of Azeri strings, drum, and pipe — sounds that could have been fashioned from surgical steel — to something more epic. Ultimately, however, the quartet still sounded insubstantial next to the two voices dominating every ear in the hall.