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CD Review


Live Music Now Scotland Celebrates 30 Years

  • Edward McGuire: Dance Suite for Two 1
  • William Sweeney: Luminate: From the Islands 2
  • Alasdair Nicolson: String Quartet #2 "The Keeper of Sheep" 3
  • John Maxwell Geddes: A Castle Mills Suite 4
  • Wildings: The Bellany Suite 5
1 Spencer-Strachan Duo
2 Emma Versteeg, soprano
4 Laura Margaret Smith, mezzo-soprano
2 Maryam Sherhan, piano
4 Geoffrey Tanti, piano
3 Astrid String Quartet
5 Wildings
Delphian DCD34153
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Part of the United Kingdom, but emphatically not of England, Scotland is a vibrant and in many ways forward-thinking, independently-minded nation. Its arts flourish. Think of The Edinburgh Festival, James MacMillan, Thea Musgrave, James Dillon and (by adoption) Peter Maxwell Davies. East Lothian-based Delphian Records has long done significant work to promote Scottish music and Scottish composers. Here is a CD celebrating 30 years of Live Music Now Scotland, the organization that has also done so much to bring music to many who would not otherwise enjoy and experience it.

The CD's hour and a quarter has five works illustrating this liveliness, seriousness, variety and confidence. They're played by a dozen or so performers developing and/or who are established and active in the musical world of Scotland. Eddie McGuire's (b. 1948) Dance Suite for Two clearly acknowledges the sprung excitement of traditional Scottish dance. But is no "orchestrated folk". The invention is original, if not especially ground-breaking. Ideas are allowed to develop and nuances of harmony and texture are neither absent nor allowed to overshadow what is a pleasing set of four miniatures with something precise and pleasing to say.

William Sweeney (b.1950) turns to the Western Isles for inspiration. It's from his three-song Luminate: From the Islands that the CD takes its title. They're lively and rhythmical settings for soprano and piano; at times the way that the latter is miked compromises the audibility of the former. The complete cycle comprises five songs which evoke and indeed draw on not only childhood memories and the round of rural life (especially on the Inner Hebrides), but also music that forms important parts of the lives and reminiscences of older people. Luminate is a Scottish festival for "Creative Ageing". As well as English, the poems (both traditional and written by Peter MacArthur), of which three are chosen for this recording are – significantly – in Gaelic… something for which Sweeney is known. They are hauntingly, yet strangely plainly performed. Successfully so.

Alasdair Nicolson's (b. 1961) Second String Quartet also has a distinctly local theme, subtitled "The Keeper of Sheep". Premiered at the 2014 St Magnus Festival in Orkney, of which Inverness-born Nicolson is the Artistic Director, the four-movement work is a response to the poem by Alberto Caeiro de Silva (a pseudonym of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa). Although distinctly pastoral – poet and composer both reflect on the shepherd's life and experiences – it's not a "dreamy" work. Indeed the second movement (entitled "the first sign of the storm that will strike the day after tomorrow") [tr.9] is decidedly angular… after all such storms as lash the coasts (and inland) of the Highlands are to be taken seriously. Yet this is not program music or sound painting. The Quartet could be enjoyed without the movements' titles. Melody is skillfully balanced with texture. At times (for example in the third movement, "beyond the bend in the road" [tr.10]), Nicolson's skillful use of the density of which strings in ensemble are capable gives the impression of larger forces than those actually present. The wildness, the endurance of the Scottish landscape encourage such a feeling.

Next comes the 15-minute long "Bellany Suite" by Wildings. They're a three-person (Sarah Hayes, flutes and keyboards; Fiona MacAskill, fiddle; Jennifer Austin, piano and keyboards) group now based in Glasgow; yet its members come from Orkney, Skye and Northumberland (just south of the border in England). The suite is perhaps the weakest of the works here. Although drawing on traditional Scottish dance and folk music tropes, it has too much of the feel of "crossover" to hit home or make any new or startling statements of its own. Commissioned by the National Galleries of Scotland, it was inspired by the presence of the Scottish landscape in the work of John Bellany (1942-2013), the pre-eminent Scottish painter of the second half of the last century. Once more, water is a present theme and its evocation handled with deftness and understatement that works well.

The last work on the CD is John Maxwell Geddes (b. 1941) Castle Mills Suite for mezzo and piano. One is reminded of Reich's Different Trains for the use of actual accounts by non-composers which the piece takes for its text. Yet in conception and practice close to the community. In this case interviews with one of the last surviving workers (103 years old) at the North British Rubber Company's Castle Mills factory in Edinburgh. Given the centennial "celebrations" between 2014 and 2018, the song-cycle fittingly memorializes events during World War I and dwells on loss, love, memories themselves as well as industrialization and the not so well-known Zeppelin raid on Edinburgh in 1916. This is neither, though, music as documentary, nor documentary music. There is poignancy and detachment, wisdom and a sense of the proportions between the immediacy of events and their significance from a later perspective which usually only older people can access. These strengths, rather than any self-generated effect, pervade the music. No maudlin. Nothing manipulative. True, the words of the reminiscences have a somewhat prosaic tone to them. But Geddes captures their genuineness and mild down-to-earth nature. That it is music with its own structure and purpose is perhaps best illustrated by the sudden and unexpected end to the fifth and last song, which also ends the CD. Nothing histrionic. Neither matter-of-fact. Just quiet accomplishment.

A thoroughly enjoyable CD, then. Even if not one which aims to display pioneering or experimental music in any way. The music here illustrates (and by implication explains) what the pre-occupations are of some of the composers prominent in Scotland and its lively and evolving musical scene half way through the second decade of this century. There is music that's technically very well-executed; there are a few surprises; there are moments, passages or beauty and much to make you think. The notion that a small country can direct substantial resources to serious music, sponsor, commission and support composition and performances of this quality, and then unassumingly celebrate its work on CD like this is most encouraging.

The acoustics are three: those of Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh; Loretto School, Musselburgh; and Gran's House Studio, Lanarkshire. They each work well for music of this scale; and present the music with thrust and clarity. It's McGuire who wrote the (incompletely-proofed, in places) booklet that gives much useful information about all the music on the CD. Carol Main, LMNS's Director also explains the project's origins and work. The texts in Gaelic, Scots and English also appear – as do brief biographies of the performers. This CD is much more than a "showcase" of musical creativity in Scotland. It contains music to be enjoyed and returned to. It shouldn't be considered at all avant-garde. But worth getting to know all the same. Only Sweeney is otherwise adequately represented in the current catalog.

Copyright © 2015, Mark Sealey