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Ronald STEVENSON (b.1928)
A'e Gowden Lyric: Songs by Ronald Stevenson
A Child's Garden of Verses [1-17]
1. Dedication
2. Bed in Summer
3. The Land of Nod
4. Time to Rise
5. Singing
6. Rain
7. Windy Nights
8. Shadow March
9. My Shadow
10. Fairy Bread
11. The Swing
12. Summer Sun
13. From a Railway Carriage
14. Autumn Fires
15. When the golden day is done
16. The Lamplighter
17. Envoy
18. Traighean (Shores)
19. The Robber
20. Hill Sang
21. The Gaelic Muse
22. The Buckie Braes
23. The Quiet Comes In
24. The Bobbin-Winder
25. To the Future
26. O Wha's the Bride
27. Trompe L'Oeil
28. The Bonny Broukit Bairn
29. Fairytales
30. Hallowe'en Sang
31. The Plum Tree
32. The Day is Düne
33. The Rose of All the World
34. The Droll Wee Man
35. A'e Gowden Lyric
Susan Hamilton (soprano)
John Cameron (piano)
world premiere recordings
rec. 21-22 Nov 2001, St Mary's Collegiate Church, Haddington, East Lothian. DDD
DELPHIAN DCD 34006 [66.59]


Susan Hamilton's voice is of a delightful type. It preserves a quality that, judging by its minority presence, must be deemed unprized. I value it highly. Sopranos by the score can produce operatically effective drama. They are lauded to the sky for clouding the words with quavering vibrato either adopted for effect or made inevitable due to vocal fatigue. Such orthodox blowsiness would kill these songs dead. As it is Hamilton stands in the select company of Catherine Bott (the hallmark voice of Swingle II), the young Felicity Palmer and Netania Davrath. Her voice has a boy treble character but with the depth that goes with a mature voice. She is perfectly suited to Stevenson's setting of his namesake's poems in 'A Child's Garden of Verses'. She sounds as if she sings as a child but the words and the piano root the music in adult sensibilities. There is horror here (the unadulterated ghoulishness of Shadow March and Windy Nights) but also nature painting as in Rain. There is also a magnificence as in Summer Sun. Stevenson's seventeen songs in A Child's Garden have a faintly Delian harmonic touch but they live a life that is ruddy, cheeky, swinging, haunted, exultant but not cloyed with late romantic afflatus - listen to Stevenson's way with the words 'Sing a song of seasons' from Autumn Fires (tr. 14). He has, without doubt, learnt something from Poulenc. I also fancied parallels with Luening's songs (on Parnassus) and with Leo Smit's settings of the Emily Dickinson poems (recorded by Bridge). These songs are vividly imagined and communicated  settings. They track the line between the merely childish and the childlike vision - that land of lost content - another 'Grand Meaulnes'. These settings are not for those who can only take English songs as traded by Warlock, Moeran and Head. The lyrical tradition may be the same but the development melds in a touch of dissonance, with voices from Pierrot Lunaire, Poulenc, Britten and certain Finzi songs (Channel Firing). The cycle is rounded out by the song Envoy (at just over six minutes the longest here) in a chilly yet comforting glisten as the listener looks out on himself or herself as the shade of the child he or she once was.

The other songs abandon Englishry and look Northwards in another eighteen songs to words by Hugh MacDiarmid, William Soutar and Sorley MacLean. There is a tranced beauty and cradled quality about so many of these songs as in The Quiet Comes In (23), The Gaelic Muse (21), The Rose of All the World (tr.33),  and Traighean (18) - something grief of the Clearances and the great emigrations. John Cameron is a constant strength and both he and Hamilton show their mastery of plastic rhythmic trickery in The Buckie Braes (22). A braw drama shakes its way through the quasi-operatic settings of The Robber (19), The Droll Wee Man (tr.31 - more humour here though) and O wha's the bride (tr.26). There are some gifts of words here - try 'yinceyirn' in Fairytales (tr.29). The setting of William Soutar's Plum Tree (decked with bloom before the flowers come 'flichterin' doun in shoo'rs / like shoo'rs o' snaw') catches a Housman 'Cherry Tree' moment in a Scots accent but remaining just as poignantly affecting.

Thank God there is not a trace of whiskey-soused tartanry here. These songs are national and indeed international treasures. I guarantee that the title track (the last song here) will have you setting repeat time after time. I certainly did.

The words of that last lyric may well be Stevenson speaking to us through MacDiarmid's words:-

Better a'e gowden lyric

Than the castle's soaring waa; 

Better a'e gowden lyric

Than onythin' else avaa.

Even so I still make the case for the recording of a number of Stevenson's 'soaring waas' - the concertos for cello and violin as well as the completion of his grandest tapestry the choral and orchestral epic Ben Dorain. What an opera Stevenson might have made of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s ‘Cloud Howe’ … if only. Returning to reality … closer in the offing is a recording of Stevenson’s great set of variations on the magical melody that sings and surges heart-rendingly from the middle movement of Arnold Bax's Second Symphony.

Delphian finish this excellent disc with a well rounded introduction by Colin Scott-Sutherland and by printing the texts in full. Three small criticisms: non-Scots might have found it helpful to have a footnote to explain some of the words, dates for the songs would have been appreciated and the poems in the booklet could have done with being numbered to match the tracks.

Susan Hamilton's voice is a clarion instrument and so well chosen for these songs. I hope I will hear more from her .... and soon. I see that in 1988 Stevenson wrote his May Songs (soprano and string orchestra) for her. A recording would surely be welcomed.  Similarly it would be good if John Cameron could be chosen to record Stevenson’s legion of folk-based piano solos.

This is Editor's disc of the month. This CD will find friends worldwide; for those who value words, music and in their coupling the power to move.

Rob Barnett

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