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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Arrangements of Scottish Songs and other works
The Poker Club Band (James Graham (voice), Masako Art (harp, direction), Edin Karamazov (guitar), Sabine Stoffer (violin), Pierre-Augustin Lay (cello))
rec. 2016, Kirche St German, Seewen, Kanton Solothurn, Switzerland
Full texts included
Reviewed in stereo and multi-channel surround sound
BIS BIS-2471 SACD [61:38]

Many moons ago, my colleague Jonathan Woolf contributed an insightful review of Volume 2 of Brilliant Classics complete edition of Haydn’s arrangements of Scottish (and Welsh) folksongs for solo voices and piano trio. In time this would prove to be a monumental undertaking which would eventually run to 18 discs and a CD-ROM (according to Amazon this hefty box survives in the listings). While I am happy to claim a soft spot for this repertoire (the Brilliant set features the vocal talents of both Lorna Anderson and Jamie MacDougall as well as the splendid, if rather underrated Haydn Trio Eisenstadt for those who are interested) my learned colleague absolutely hits the nail on the head when he states that “the sheer bulk…. [of these songs]….makes them daunting…” (there are around 500 of them!!) and in his pithy conclusion that “These folksongs should be savoured like chocolate mints, a few at a time. Any more and indigestion is assured”.

The story of Haydn’s obsession with these tunes and his friendship with the similarly afflicted publisher and antiquarian George Thomson is by now well-known and is neatly summarised in the booklet note, and although Thomson wasn’t solely responsible in piquing the composer’s interest in this field (other Scots to commission collections were William Whyte and William Napier), all of the arrangements featuring in this particular recital were provided for him. Evocatively titled Tullochgorum, the new disc offers listeners a fresh perspective on this repertoire; a distinctive and palatable route into some quite delightful music. The wonderfully styled Poker Club Band (a reference to the venue where the Edinburghian intellectual cognoscenti would meet, drink, and chew the fat over the issues of the day) is a multinational quintet which features both harp and guitar (the fine Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov, in fact) and its agreeably ‘Scottish’ sound arguably creates a more enjoyable journey than the oft trodden road of voice with piano trio. They offer a selection of eleven songs, separated by aptly chosen arrangements of Haydn’s instrumental music which act as interludes. The singing is provided by James Graham, a native of Lochinver whose idiomatic folk style works perfectly in this singular context. The concept is seemingly the brainchild of the Kyoto-born harpist Masako Art; it is triumphantly realised. I can say with complete honesty that I have thrice played this issue at a single sitting; it’s a claim I certainly could not make for any of the 18 discs in the Brilliant set.

The first pair of songs (like the majority on this disc) are settings of Robert Burns. Both O Poortith Cauld and Auld Rob Morris muse on the disadvantage of impecuniosity in matters of the heart (a rather stereotypical local concern). One’s initial reaction to Graham’s voice is that here at last is a singer who can convey both the formal intention and the Celtic spirit of these tunes in a style that is perhaps beyond the conservatoire-trained artist. If the first number represents a somewhat stoical narrator the second is more heartfelt, even tender. Graham projects each of them most convincingly. He is certainly helped by the identifiably local timbre of the harp, although Masako Art’s instrument is actually an Érard; a single action pedal harp (in Art’s most illuminating note she goes on to mention the strong connnection between this very instrument and the Edinburgh music scene at the time these songs were doing the rounds, as well as convincingly postulating the notion that the harp may well have enjoyed primacy over the piano in this repertoire in that place at that moment). The joy for the home listener in the company of the Poker Club Band is that one can truly relax and enjoy; undo one’s top button, pour a tot of the finest Macallan and poke the coal rather than sitting in a cold concert hall trying not to cough and wondering how you’re going to get through fifteen of these samey piano trio-accompanied songs before the interval.

The next two items are for Masako Art’s Érard alone, a tiny Prelude and an arrangement of the 2nd movement of Haydn’s Symphony No 63, La Roxolane. They both epitomise the evident care and attention she has lavished upon the design of this programme. Both pieces emerged from the pen of one John Elouis, a renowned French harp teacher who worked and resided in Edinburgh in the early nineteenth century, made his own arrangements of Scottish folksongs and readily disparaged Haydn’s attempts in this field as utterly devoid of Scottishness, although he greatly admired Haydn as a serious composer and even named his first son after him! A parallel pair of Elouis’ arrangements (including a movement from the Symphony No 82 ‘The Bear’) crop up later in the programme.

A quartet of songs follows, one of which is The Mucking of Geordie's Byre, a tune whose earthy text fails utterly to match the civility of Haydn’s arrangement or the purity of James Graham’s delivery. Another number, Up in the Morning Early certainly conveys the rarefied Highland air. We are subsequently treated to another instrumental interlude courtesy of the great French guitarist François de Fossa, a contemporary who was drawn to Haydn and arranged his music for his own instrument. He compiled three Grands Duos; in this case the model is Haydn’s String Quartet Op 2 No 2. It is delightfully played here by Edin Karamazov in tandem with Masako Art’s harp and fits the needs of the disc to perfection.

There’s a plangent delicacy at the outset of MacGregor of Ruara’s Lament, its exclusively strummed and plucked introduction sounding especially Celtic before violin and cello enter after the first stanza and remind the listener of the arrangement’s classical provenance. This song especially provides a fine illustration of the success of the multichannel (specifically 4.0 Surround) recording. The staggered entry of each participant is tellingly reproduced. This is an unusually warm, luminous and inviting sound image – for me at least it’s a rare example of SACD actually enhancing the reproduction of small scale, intimate music-making. Morag, the touching Burns’ setting which follows, benefits from another thoughtful arrangement which amplifies the specifically local ancestry of this music in a way that the original piano trio accompaniment cannot. I am a huge admirer of the Northumberland-based group The Unthanks; Masako Art’s arrangements (and James Graham’s voice) seem to draw more from that kind of polished folk aesthetic than classical chamber music.

The concluding sequence of four numbers is especially satisfying. The brief Lizae Baillie seems to float on the ether; the rousing, foot-tapping title track Tullochgorum becomes a tripartite medley - its tiny second element is an example of Puirt a beul, Gaelic unaccompanied ‘mouth music’ which is joyfully dispatched by James Graham before a concluding instrumental reel – neither Sabine Stoffer (violin) and Pierre-Augustin Lay (cello) are native Highlanders – you would never know! Stoffer and Art join forces for the final track on the disc, an authentic, heartfelt lament.

Tullochgorum is a delightful package, as artfully conceived as it is performed. Masako Art’s exemplary note apart, the booklet also carries a wonderful reproduction of a contemporary etching by one Walter Geikie of ‘The Reel o’ Tullochgorum’ which absolutely embodies the spirit of the music-making on this disc. Ms.Art possibly gets to the ‘reel’ heart of the matter in the last paragraph of her note which quotes the verse in full – its last quatrain epitomising the quality of this most Scottish account of Haydn’s efforts to date:

“They’re dowf and dowie at the best, Their allegros and a’ the rest, They canna’ please a Scottish taste - Compar’d wi’ Tullochgorum”.

I can only concur wholeheartedly.

Richard Hanlon

Contents (songs arranged by Haydn unless stated):
O Poortith Cauld, Hob. XXXIa:17a [3:16]
Auld Rob Morris, Hob.XXXIa:192 [3:28]
John ELOUIS (1758-1833) Prelude in C minor for harp [0:41]
arr ELOUIS Roxolane d’Haydn (from Symphony No. 63 in C major 'La Roxelane') for harp [4:00]
The Mucking of Geordie's Byre, Hob.XXXIa:51a [3:11]
The Siller Crown, Hob.XXXIa:260 [2:53]
Up in the morning early, Hob.XXXIa:28 [2:35]
Deil tak' the wars, Hob.XXXIa:229 [2:23]
9-11 arr François DE FOSSA (1775- 1849) Grand duo pour deux guitars, after Haydn
(from String Quartet Op 2 No 2 Hob. III:8 [13:31]
12. McGregor of Ruara’s Lament, Hob.XXXIa:81 [3:14]
13. Morag, Hob.XXXIa:143a [3:16]
14. John ELOUIS Prelude in G Major, for harp [1:27]
15. arr. ELOUIS Romance de Haydn (from Symphony No. 82 in C major, 'The Bear') for harp
16. Lizae Baillie, Hob.XXXIa:83 [2:18]
17. Oran gaoil, Hob.XXXIa:228 [2:07]
18. Tullochgorum, Hob.XXXIa:270 [3:11]
19. Niel GOW (1727-1807) Niel Gow’s Lament for the Death of his Second Wife [3:21]

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