This disc will be a revelation to many, and
firmly establishes the composer of the virtuosic 80-min long Passacaglia
on DSCH for piano solo as also the most original and most lyrical
voice in Scottish music today.
These characterful settings of quite diverse,
but essentially Scottish, poetry range from the chuckling syncopations
of Soutar's "The Buckie Braes" to the earthy pathos of MacDiarmid's
"O Wha's the Bride" - from the tracery of threads in "The Bobbin
Winder" (MacDiarmid) to the sleepy bairn of "The Quiet comes in"
(Soutar). There are moments of sheer melodic beauty and felicities
too numerous to mention - with piano writing of consummate artistry
(here superbly realised by the fine pianist John Cameron). One
is tempted to ask why these songs - and the few hundred others
(including ten song cycles ranging from Blake to Ho Chi Minh)
are not in the repertoire of every Scottish singer.
The principal work is the cycle of poems chosen
(significantly) from Robert Louis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden
of Verses". The young Susan Hamilton, then in the company of Neil
Mackie (tenor), Richard Townhill (treble) with the composer, gave
the first performance in December 1985. While this scoring was
the composer's original conception he sanctioned performance by
a solo voice - and what happens here in this recording is quite
magical. By some artistry Susan Hamilton, while assuming the elder
role in the first and last songs (as the words demand) recalls
in subsequent songs (such as "Bed in Summer") her earlier experience
of the music and seems to imbue her voice with the youthful timbre
of twenty years previous. And in the "Shadow March" , whose childishly
perceived menace pervaded the young RLS's childhood as it does
the entire cycle in the music, she injects a frisson of fear into
'All round the house is the jet black night'.
One can almost feel the sensation of the swing,
smell the woodsmoke and hear the clatter of the train. The poet
always wished these poems to be illustrated. Ronald Stevenson
is a consummate illustrator in sound - the canonic imitation in
"My Shadow" and the collapsing of the "Autumn Fires" sending a
shower of chromatic sparks into the evening air, are examples
- the cycle a 'kinderscenen' of vividly imagined music.
The remaining settings of MacDiarmid and Soutar
begin with the solitary setting of Sorley MacLean's "Traighean"
- the opening clarsach-like chords of which, with the very appropriate
sleeve illustration, are in the direct line of a true Scottish
element from Carver to Francis George Scott - a Scottish element
that is the inflected human voice. So expressive is the singing
that the idiosyncracies of the poets' voices need trouble no one.
Just as the immense Passacaglia stems from the
small three-bar cell of four notes (DSCH) so Stevenson's songs
here are fully expressed in the miniatures of "The Rose of all
the World" and the title song "A'e Gowden Lyric". And as this
recital concludes the singer repeats the 'gowden lyric', quietly,
fading into the distance in an evocative epilogue following that
shoreline into the distance.
This disc well deserves Rob Barnett's accolade
as editor's Disc of the month - for me it is likely to be the
disc of the year.