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VARIOUS ARTISTS The Complete Songs Of Robert Tannahill, Volume 1

The Complete Songs Of Robert Tannahill, Volume 1
Brechin All Records CDBAR 003

Dr Fred Freeman, producer and musical director of the internationally acclaimed Complete Songs of Robert Burns project, believes that since the centenary edition of Robert Tannahill's works in 1874 (and associated festivities in Paisley that same year), Tannahill has been sadly neglected; so it was with this in mind that Dr Freeman decided to record a similar project for Tannahill, whereby it is envisaged that five projected CDs incorporating all his known songs will be completed by 2010 in order to mark the bicentenary of his death. The "obscure" Tannahill (1774-1810) was a weaver by trade and songwriter and poet (and flautist) by calling; the thesis of this project being that he was the pre-eminent songwriter of his day who should have been recognised as such. He wrote over a hundred songs, of a quality comparable to Burns; and like Burns, Tannahill had a clear understanding of the difference between song and poetry.

Tannahill was obsessed with the rhythm, the ready-made and clearly delineated structure of Scottish national musical forms - strathspeys, jigs, etc. (and it's said that you can hear the sway of his loom in the repeated refrains of songs such as Hey Donald!) - whereas the less rhythmic of his songs are persuasive essays in a darker kind of romanticism, generally not at all deserving of the "sweetly sentimental" tag with which contemporary descriptions saddled them. I especially liked the way the new arrangements often feel like a dialogue between singer and player - which I understand was Freeman's intention - while it helps too that the performers chosen for this project (at least on the evidence of this first disc to be issued) are all excellent singers of real character who possess unrivalled clear diction: Emily Smith, Wendy Weatherby and Gillian MacDonald making up the female contingent, then there's velvet-voiced Angus-man Jim Reid as well as John Croall (Jock Tamson's Bairns), Ross Kennedy (ex-Tannahill Weaver and now Canterach), John Morran (Deaf Shepherd) and Ian Anderson (Fiddler's Leap), with Dr. Freeman himself giving a brief recitation as a prelude to the closing song.

The select pool of backing musicians is well chosen too: label boss Sandy Brechin (accordion), Marc Duff (whistles, recorder, bodhrán), Corrina Hewat (harp), Aaron Jones (cittern), Anna Massie (guitar, mandolin), Frank McLaughlin and John Morran (guitars), Rod Paul (mandolin), Wendy Weatherby (cello), Mike Vass (fiddle), Alasdair Macleod (congas) and Chris Agnew (bass). Scotching the misconception of historians that the settings for Tannahill's songs were "mostly new Scottish airs composed by R. A. Smith", we learn from the admirably informative accompanying booklet (which includes full texts and glossary by the way) that the tunes used are in fact predominantly traditional Scottish, some Irish (although Smith did have a hand in a few!).

Highlights for me were the supremely atmospheric With Waefu' Heart (Wendy and Sandy), Fly Me To Some Distant Isle and Och My Johnnie Lad (both Emily, Marc and Corrina), The Five Friends (Jim, Aaron & Frank) and Gillian's delicious unaccompanied song The Dear Highland Laddie, O). I also enjoyed The Braes O' Balquhidder (a kind of variant of Wild Mountain Thyme), written to a strathspey with that dance's pointedly emphatic fits and starts. But in truth every performance here has plenty to commend it. And faithfulness to the original texts is not compromised either by the occasional addition of a chorus section or by a small degree of editing to enable better flow for the singers. There's a spirit and liveliness about all of these treatments which is both infectious and wholly appealing; and no hint of fusty, dusty academe. Quality is assured throughout this beautifully performed and recorded release, and I'm already looking forward eagerly to volumes 2-5.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 70 of The Living Tradition magazine.