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Scotstown Music
Mansfield House
Lainshaw Street
Stewarton KA3 5BU
0131 667 5762

The art of Robert BURNS
Contented wi’ little and cantie wi’ mair
Ay Waukin O
Green grow the Rashes O
O leave novels, ye Mauchline Belles
A man’s a man for a’ that
Tunes celebrating bridges:
The south bridge of Edinburgh
The Bridge of Perth
The new bridge of Ballater
The new bridge of Rutherglen
Clarinda, mistress of my soul
Here awa’, there awa’ wandering Willie
Variations on ‘The Lea Rig’
What can a young lassie do wi’ an auld man

Neil Gow’s "Lament for Abercairney" Cello setting
Where braving angry winter’s storms Neil Gow’s original violin version
Whistle o’er the lave o’t
O Tibbie, I hae seen the day
Invercauld’s Reel
The Catrine woods were yellow seen
Rory Dall’s port
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever
The Highland Hills
Had I the wyte – she bade me
O Willie brew’d a peck o’ maut

The Musicians of Edinburgh
David Johnson Artistic Director
Hilary Bell (soprano)
Paul Rendall (tenor)
Geoff Davidson (baritone)
Bonnie Ridout (violin - guest)
Kevin McCrae (cello)
Philip Sawyer (harpsichord/fortepiano)
Edna Arthur (violin - guest)
Recorded at Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin, Midlothian
SCOTSTOWN MUSIC no number [60.18]


This collection purports to recreate "the historical context and ambience of the period" as would have been the experience of Burns in his day. This comprehensive selection of vocal and instrumental music is perhaps a rather more staid version of communal music-making of the time – for I imagine that "wi’ a cog o’ guid swats and an auld Scotish sang" to say nothing o’ the lassies, the true ambience would more likely be found in the village pub (the ‘coffin’ in John Dowie’s tavern?) than in the somewhat dry acoustic of Rosslyn Chapel. Nevertheless this representative collection provides an excellent survey of Robert Burns’ lyrics and the traditional tunes to which he matched them. There is no questioning the authority of Dr David Johnson , the artistic director of the group, whose knowledge of the subject and his academic purpose – " to set right the balance, and present Burns’ songs once more as they were known to his 18th Century contemporaries" – is readily demonstrated, illustrating how expertly the poet’s lyric fits the tune. Though a far cry from the boisterous ‘ Merry Muses of Caledonia’ the roughspun philosophy of the ‘man of independent mind’ who ‘loves and laughs at a’ that’ is intermingled with the cheerful ‘I rhyme for fun’ – and includes some very beautiful melodies.

Despite the perennial airing of "Tam O’Shanter" and "A man’s a man" at countless Burns suppers (so denigrated by McDiarmid) all too few Scots fully comprehend the purely musical abilities of the poet and his instinctive feeling for the melodic procedures of Scottish folk melody and for the traditional voice whose roots are nearer the classical.

What is the essence of Burns? - ‘The Holy Fair’ or ‘The Jolly Beggars’? Noses have been snootily lifted over the rough bawdy humour. Yet Wordsworth’s succinct description of the essence as "the presence of human life" is probably the nearest one gets to the truth. What Dr Johnson and his party have done is to strip the melodies of the sugary tartan coating that in those Burns suppers has so often turned ‘hamely fare’ into sanctimonious bathos. And in one or two instances there are contrasting examples of Burns’ words being set independently (in "Clorinda mistress of my Soul" the Dibdin-esque setting is a good example of classical procedures, as also in Masterton’s setting of "The Catrine Woods")

Interspersed with the vocal numbers - some unaccompanied (*) - are a wheen instrumental tunes , some celebrating the opening of famous bridges from Burns’ time, and a set of virtuosic variations on the lovely ‘The Lea Rig’ (played here by Edna Arthur as guest of the group), and a very moving presentation, in its original violin and in its cello guise, of Neil Gow’s "Lamentation for Abercairney" Little wonder is it that Burns was so taken with this fine melody that, despite its rather unvocal stretches he penned an erotically charged verse about the revealing of Peggy’s charms – a subject never far from his heart.

The whole ‘gallimaufry’ ends in a characteriscally boozy apotheosis, much closer to the world of ‘The Jolly Beggars’, - " we arena fou, we’re nae that fou/ jist a drappie in oor e’e".

If I found the ambience to be that of the drawing room rather than the tavern then the timbre of the voices, especially the lovely voice of the soprano, is wholly appropriate to that setting – and that in this, different from the overly popular (vulgar) concept of Burns and his songs, the ensemble and Dr Johnson succeeds in presenting that interpretation which is the intention. A delight for anyone – not only for the Scot!

Colin Scott-Sutherland


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