The genesis of this programme lies in a wish on the part of composer/conductor Tom Cunningham to write a new choral work using poems by a living Scottish poet. He turned to Alexander McCall Smith, the creator of The Ladies Number One Detective Agency
novels, for suggestions as to potential collaborators and, unexpectedly, found McCall Smith offering to compose some verses himself. The result was a six-movement work, Scotland at Night
, here receiving its first recording. The alliance between Cunningham and McCall Smith has evidently been a productive one for other joint projects have followed, including The Painter's Eye
, settings of five specially written poems, each one inspired by a famous painting. To complete an enterprising programme, Mike Brewer has chosen a varied selection of short pieces by various composers, all of them either settings of Scottish poetry or arrangements of Scottish folk songs.
I've previously enjoyed several offerings from Mike Brewer and his excellent chamber choir, Laudibus. These have included their splendid disc of Vaughan Williams choral music (see review
) and the highly imaginative programme entitled Song of Songs
). I'm delighted to find that the immaculate singing, crystal-clear diction and strong commitment that Laudibus exhibited on their previous discs is once again evident here.
In his excellent notes John Fallas says of Scotland at Night
'Cunningham's settings match the texts with a musical language similarly poised between the vernacular and the magically evocative'. That's a description that's as accurate as it is felicitous. Two settings illustrate the point brilliantly, I think. In the fifth song, 'Trout loch', Cunningham, through some wonderfully imaginative writing, evokes liquid, fast moving eddies under the surface of nocturnal water and, equally, the swift movements of the trout that inhabit that world. Earlier, the third song, 'Ceilidh', is nothing less than a Gaelic knees-up. The music has a merry stepping gait, which I found quite irresistible and the piece sounds really good fun - and is sung as such. Elsewhere, the music of the opening song, 'Dusk', is warm and enveloping and I was captivated by 'Simmer Dim in Shetland'. The term, 'simmer dim', refers to the twilight that replaces night in a Shetland summer and Cunningham's magically imagined music is uncannily effective. This setting put me in mind of Vaughan Williams' magnificent 'The Cloud-Capp'd Towers' and I don't think I can pay Cunningham's piece a higher compliment than that. To conclude the set we have a beautiful, warm 'Lullaby' in which some delightful thoughts on the part of McCall Smith provide a marvellous springboard for his composer's imagination.
Scotland at Night
strikes me as a very fine addition to the choral repertoire, combining excellent words and music to make the whole even more than the sum of its parts. The work receives a superb recorded première from Laudibus.
They're in equally fine form for the other Cunningham/McCall Smith offering, The Painter's Eye
. Again, there's much to enjoy and admire here but I thought this set of five songs worked slightly less well. I think the trouble is that the songs are inspired by famous paintings but with one exception I didn't have access to the pictures in question when listening. Therefore, for me the pieces existed in a vacuum to some extent though that's something which may well not be an issue for other listeners. Raeburn's famous picture, The Skating Minister
, adorns the booklet cover so one can instantly make the connection though, ironically, this is the one piece in the set that doesn't contain original music. Instead, Cunningham offers us a brilliantly effective pastiche of Waldteufel's Skater's Waltz
. Other highlights in this set include 'Tower of Babel' where Cunningham skilfully illustrates the clamour of Babel in the last two stanzas of the poem. The final piece, 'An Old Man and His Grandson', offers another especially happy marriage of words and music in a rather moving song about the mixed feelings with which a young person might view the ageing process. If, for me, this collection of part-songs is less successful than Scotland at Night
it's only to a slight degree and The Painter's Eye
should prove an excellent test for many choirs in years to come.
Beth Mackay is the soloist in the piece by Arvo Pärt, the only item on the programme that features an instrumental accompaniment. She sings Pärt's Burns setting very well with a lovely, warm tone and her diction is excellent. Unfortunately, the music itself does little for me. I admire a good deal of Pärt's output but, to be blunt, this particular piece is simply dreary. Miss Mackay first came to my attention when she appeared as soloist on a recent Delphian disc by another choir devoted to the music of Howard Skempton (see review
). It seems that Skempton was so impressed with her contribution to that disc that he wrote for her an unaccompanied setting of Burns's Address to Edinburgh
. Like most of the other pieces on the disc it receives its first recording here. Suffice to say that Beth Mackay repays handsomely the compliment paid to her by Howard Skempton with a splendid performance of his new piece.
The two James MacMillan works also set Burns. So Deep
is a setting of 'O my Luv's like a red, red rose' and MacMillan uses Burns' own tune. He gives this to the sopranos and his use of the other voices in the choir is superbly imaginative. The melody for The Gallant Weaver
is MacMillan's own and the treatment is wonderfully imagined. As John Fallas puts it 'the effect is dreamlike, as if we were being given less a re-presentation of the lyric, a narration of its events, than a dream about a folk-song
Ronald Stevenson's A Medieval Scottish Triptych
is, perhaps, the strongest meat on this particular menu. The piece is demanding for the listener and, certainly, for the performers, though Laudibus seem equal to all its challenges. I must confess that I didn't really warm to it but it's clearly an impressive piece, especially in the third of its three sections, an impassioned utterance in praise of peace.
This whole programme is immaculately and professionally executed by Mike Brewer and his expert choir of twenty young singers - five to each part. This disc can only enhance the reputation of Laudibus both for superb singing and for imaginative programming. The engineers have accorded them first class sound and, as I've already indicated, the booklet notes are very good. I've thoroughly enjoyed my nocturnal musical tour of Scotland and one couldn't ask for better guides than Mike Brewer and Laudibus.
Laudibus will be presenting a late-evening concert, based on this CD, on Saturday 15 August in St Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh as part of the city's 2009 Fringe Festival. Details are on the Fringe website
and the box office can be contacted on +44 (0) 131 226 0000.