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VARIOUS ARTISTS The Complete Songs Of Robert Tannahill Volume 2

The Complete Songs Of Robert Tannahill Volume 2
Brechin All Records CDBAR010

Emerging from the shadows of last year’s extensive Burns celebrations, the bi-centenary of the death of a songwriter who was almost every bit the equivalent in terms of quality (if not quite as prolific!) is now being marked in a more low-key manner by the release of the second volume in the projected series of five discs which will eventually contain all of his songs. It continues in the same vein of excellence as Volume 1 (issued four long years ago), and is entirely consistent with the earlier disc in terms of the superlative quality of its recording and production (again courtesy of Dr. Fred Freeman) and accompanying booklet.

The roster of performers gives continuity with Volume 1 in the presence of one of its singers (Emily Smith) and five of its instrumentalists (Wendy Weatherby, Aaron Jones, Frank McLaughlin, Marc Duff, Chris Agnew and Fiddler’s Leap man Ian Anderson), while it also calls on the services of Malinky’s Steve Byrne (mandolin, guitar), Box Club’s Angus Lyon (accordion) and Tannahill Weavers’ John Martin (fiddle), with Chris Wright (cittern, guitar), Richard Werner (congas, djembe) and Mike Black (tabla). The present volume is dedicated to the memory of Jim Reid, a key contributor to volume 1, who sadly died last July. Thus, vocal honours this time are more or less evenly divided between Jim Malcolm (Old Blind Dogs), Nick Keir (McCalmans), Anam’s Brian O’hEadhra, the aforementioned Steve Byrne and up-and-coming Lucy Pringle (a Danny Award winner at last year’s Celtic Connections), with Rallion’s Marieke McBean contributing a brief but enticingly energetic rendition of Hey Donald, How Donald.

Generally speaking, the fresh contemporary arrangements of the disc’s 20 songs observe and preserve the traditional forms (e.g. strathspeys and reels) where originally conceived as such, although in several cases extensive restoration work had to be conducted by Dr. Freeman on the melodies, many of which were raw, unfinished or fragmentary and some wholly lost (that for The Soldier’s Widow, sung acappella – and very persuasively too – by Lucy, was entirely composed by Freeman). And as on the first volume of the series, some songs have gained elements such as a chorus or amended lines here and there in order to render them more singable – but surely nobody can complain, so sympathetically has this been done.

Particularly memorable selections on this latest disc are the more pensive items, notably Gloomy Winter’s Noo Awa’ and While The Grey Pinioned Lark (both exquisitely sung by Emily), while the charming lilting timbre of Brian’s voice (on Peggy O’Rafferty, One Night In My Youth, the tender Kitty Tyrell and especially the delicate Bonnie Winsome Mary) also proves very hard to resist (even though for some listeners its essential Irishness of character won’t exactly square with their expectations of what Scottish song should sound like – but then again, some are set to Irish tunes after all!). I also liked the gentle but passionate way Nick moulds the vocal lines on Brave Lewie Boy and Steve on The Soldier’s Adieu (with its echoes of The Parting Glass), while all of Lucy’s three contributions are wonderfully alert and bright-toned, her Fragment Of A Scottish Ballad tripping as lithely along as Emily’s Mine Ain Dear Somebody. Each song interpretation has been carried out as a true collaborative effort between Freeman and the chosen artists, retaining from volume 1 the essential and happy combination of lightness of touch and seriousness of purpose – and again, commanding some outstanding singing and playing from those artists without exception.

This is modern scholarship at its best, but there’s not a whiff of undue academe about the exercise – so bring on volumes 3, 4 and 5; and soon, I say.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 85 of The Living Tradition magazine.