|F G SCOTT, RONALD CENTER, RONALD STEVENSON. Piano music of Scotland Murray McLachlan. (piano) Olympia OCD264|
Perhaps it is because the national music of Scotland - the Celtic harp, the great Highland Bagpipe and the quasi-oriental melodic patterns of Hebridean song - does not lend itself readily to keyboard treatment - essentially percussive - that a CD entitled ‘Piano Music from Scotland’ raises an eyebrow? It might not be too far from the truth to suggest that even raising the shades of Lamond and D’Albert brings us little nearer to a Scottish identity in keyboard terms? The same reservation however applies to England) Quite recently I reviewed another disc of Scottish Piano Music - more accurately music for piano by Scottish composers - of whom only Hamish MacCunn could be truthfully said to have succeeded from a nationalist point of view. A genre, which, despite the ‘Scotch snap’ and other superficially ‘tartan’ exportable elements, hails Scotland as its origin (though more often conceived and composed in London) reminds me inevitably of MacDiarmid: And a’ that’s Scotch aboot it is the name / Like a’ thing else ca’d Scottish nooadays / A’ destitute o’ speerit juist the same. His subject was, of course, whisky!
This latest CD from Olympia encompasses three composers who, despite a certain cosmopolitanism, can rightly claim to be Scottish in the truest sense of artistic sensitivity to the role of Scottish creative art in the broader world context. The first encounter is with Francis George Scott and at the same time with Ronald Stevenson. And here we might sense something of an anomaly - Scott being the composer of a mere half dozen volumes of songs and Stevenson here in his role as transcriber. Yet it could not be a happier marriage. Scott’s songs, of which eight are featured here in transcriptions by Stevenson, belong without doubt to both Scotland and to the world - full of richly expressive melody with strikingly modern harmonic colouring - full of the no-nonsense character and formidable ‘grit’ for which the Scot is famous. And the transcribing of these songs for keyboard alone could only have been tackled by one who has a virtuosic command of the keyboard. Stevenson’s intromissions with these already fine songs (essentially duos for voice and piano rather than melodies with accompaniment) displays just such virtuosity - but more, a sensitivity for the very Scottish nuances inspired by the verses which, in their turn, inspired the music. The bar-less setting of MacDiarmid’s ‘Milkwort and Bog-Cotton’ must surely be one of the most deeply felt pieces of music ever written. The eight songs represented contrast such luscious melodies as ‘Since all thy vows ‘False Maid’ (which Stevenson sets at the outset for Left Hand alone, later decorating with arpeggios) and the expressive ‘Ay Waukin’ O', with the delightfully capri-cious ‘Wee Willie Gray’ and the final virtuosic ‘There’s News Lasses News’ - this final piece played with huge Graingeresque abandon by the pianist Murray MacLachlan.
No advocate of Scottish music for piano has a richer knowledge of all that is music than this young virtuoso. His playing, and his advocacy of this music, is exciting enough. His generous sleeve note of thirteen pages demonstrates his overall knowledge of musical culture and makes not only informative, but delightful reading - No parochial he! In both writing and in execution he places the Bartókian Sonata of Ronald Center (c 1958?) squarely in the forefront of Scottish classical music - a dramatically powerful yet spiri-tually questing work, full of driving energy and contrasting melancholy. The unity of the conception of this recording is underlined by the fact that the first performance of this Sonata was given in 1979 by Ronald Stevenson. Also by Center the disc includes the Six Bagatelles opus 3 - a curious misnomer for such intensely felt music whose inner correlations, both melodic and rhythmic, make this a particularly strong set.
Three pieces by Ronald Stevenson conclude the recital. The first, an exciting ‘druidic act of sun worship’ entitled Beltane Bonfire. This piece, brilliantly festive as the composer directs but no show of empty virtuosity was written for the Scottish International Piano Competition of 1990, yet seems to explore the memory of some vital, even eerie experience - such as might have been had in a sojourn in the remote isles of the west where the trappings of contemporary civilisation dissolve before the winds that blow from Tír-nan-Óg. Stevenson’s mastery of the keyboard, both as executant and composer, is well known. The acclaim for his 80-minute long Passacaglia on DSCH in some ways has over-shadowed his shorter pieces for piano - yet there are many that are eminently approachable. Murray McLachlan concludes with the darkly contemplative The Dowie Dens O Yarrow - and the ebullient, catchy Newhaven Fishwife’s Cry (mischievously dedicated to the composer’s wife Marjorie!) - two of the many settings (though ‘realisations’ might be a more accurate description) of Scottish folk music.
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