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Homecoming - A Scottish Fantasy
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Scottish Fantasy [25:03]
Robert BURNS (1759-1796)
Ae Fond Kiss [4:37]
Auld Lang Syne variations [4:05]
My Love is Like a Red Red Rose [3:41]
James Scott SKINNER (1843-1927)
Hurricane Set [4:07]
The Dean Brig o’ Edinburgh [3:11]
Phil CUNNINGHAM (b. 1960)
Aberlady [3:45]
Mouth Music and Tunes Set [5:11]
The Gentle Light that Wakes Me [6:05]
Coisich a rùin (Walk, My Beloved) [4:08]
Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond [5:26]
Nicola Benedetti (violin)
with Julie Fowlis, Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Rory Macdonald
rec. City Halls, Glasgow (for tracks with orchestra) and Castlebound Studios, Pencaitland, January 2014
DECCA 478 6690 [76:00]

Everyone has been talking about Scotland recently, and I write this review now that we know that its future in the United Kingdom is assured ... for now. This summer you couldn’t move in Edinburgh for people talking about the referendum – it spawned a huge number of shows and events in all the Edinburgh Festivals – but it was especially interesting that it didn’t just bring about a discussion about Scotland’s politics but also its wider culture and its place in the world. Nicola Benedetti is probably the most visible Scot in classical music at the minute, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that she recorded this album for release at just this time. As it turns out, it strikes a series of happy chords, and it achieves the rare feat of managing to be successful both as a classical and as a folk album.
You couldn’t really do a disc like this without Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, which works very well. Benedetti works harmoniously with Macdonald and his orchestra so that it never comes across as a one-woman show, and the tub-thumping moments, most notably the famous finale, come off with plenty of fizz and flair. However, it was the gentler moments that spoke to me all the more: the violin has a beautifully songful quality in the opening movement, and the third movement is even better, with a meltingly wistful take on I'm A' Doun for Lack O' Johnnie.
This is the most conventionally “classical” section of the disc, but two of the Burns settings have orchestral accompaniments too. Ae fond kiss is beautifully played but also has a gorgeously rich, Romantic orchestral arrangement to wallow in. Benedetti adopts the less familiar original melody of Auld Lang Syne for the variations, which is rather less extrovert than the tune we sing on New Year's Eve, and the arrangement, by Benedetti's friend and colleague Petr Limonov, makes it sound meditative, even prayer-like. My love is like a red, red rose is best of the set, though. It has the best melody, for a start, and is given both an ultra-rich orchestration and an effective working-through as a set of variations.
The rest of the album is a set of folk collaborations and it's this that I enjoyed the most. They're accompanied by a small set of musicians, giving them a very different feel to the rest of the numbers, and they also unleash something in Benedetti that I bet she doesn't often get the chance to show. The Hurricane Set, for example, sounds as though it has come straight from a ceilidh dance, albeit with a cadenza somewhat bizarrely inserted. A lot of the other numbers wouldn’t sound out of place if they were played in a pub in the West Highlands ... high praise. The Dean Brig combines the buttoned-up refinement of Scotland's capital with the flair of a Strathspey dance, while Loch Lomond again taps into the gentle vein exploited so effectively in the Scottish Fantasy. Phil Cunningham’s music turns up a lot, to great effect. Aberlady, named after the East Lothian town where they stayed while making the recording, has a bittersweet quality to it, and there is a really beautiful lilt to The Gentle Light That Wakes Me. I loved the liveliness of the rhythm and melody of Mouth Music. I didn't warm easily to its vocal line, though, whereas I did to Coisich a rùin.
The recorded sound is generous and appropriate to the different kinds of music on offer, and Benedetti’s own booklet notes are extensive and personal. The notes also include the Burns poems and the Gallic texts. This disc confirms Benedetti as a most versatile artist and deserves to win her many more friends ... and not just north of the border.
Simon Thompson