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Scottish Lute Recordings

Aside from the lute manuscripts, the main source for early Scottish music is Music of Scotland 1500-1700, volume 15 of the massive British early music series Musica Britannica. There is some other material which has not been published as far as I know. Playford's Dancing Master, published in London in 1651, is the first British publication devoted to dance music. It contains a number of Scottish pieces, and, some say, the original of The Irish Washerwoman (derived from Dargason).

Following are short reviews of various recordings I have come across which relate to the earliest sources for Scottish music.

Lutenist The Rowallan Consort
Notes, of Noy, Notes of Joy
Temple Records COMD 2058
Robert Phillips, lute, and William Taylor, clarsach (wire-strung harp), with additional vocalists.

A nice selection of music, mostly from Musica Britannica and the lute MSS. I particular enjoy the combination of lute and clarsach. Many of the pieces in the lute MSS probably were originally played on harp.

My one quibble with this otherwise excellent recording is they are too uncritical of the sources. I suppose classical training leaves you believing that everything that's written down is correct. In Gypsies Lilt from the Rowallan MS, it's clear by looking at the tablature that one note was written one string too far over, and if you play it as written you get a horrible sounding chord. (Note: this turned into rather a topic of debate on the lute list. Some people seem to like the chord. But early music experts I've consulted agree it would be unheard of during that period.)

The mistake is repeated several times throughout the piece, but it is quite likely to be a copying error, since the people who wrote out the lute MSS seem to have been people who played by ear and wrote music on paper only infrequently.

Rather than correcting the error, or even commenting on the problem, Phillips plays it as written and writes in the notes:

'Gypsies Lilt' is a very unusual work, centred around a weird and highly emotional chord. If there is one piece that separates Scottish lute music from all other English and continental music then this is it.

Despite this odd example, on the whole the notes are very well-written. The Baltimore Consort could learn a lesson from them. There are also some publications available from Forth House.

Harp carvingRob MacKillop and William Taylor
Graysteil: Music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Scotland
Dorian Discovery DIS-80141
Rob MacKillop, lute, and William Taylor, clarsach (wire-strung harp), with Andy Hunter, ballad singer, and Paul Rendall, tenor.

With two of the same performers (Taylor and Rendall) as the previous CD, it's not surprising that this CD is in a similar style. The title of the CD takes in a wide span of history, so perhaps it's also not surprising that it turns out to be a bit of a hodgepodge—although quite a pleasant one.

One of my big disappointments is that I really like the sound of lute and clarsach together, but only a few tracks on the CD have the combination of both. I'm guessing the intent here was to go back before the usual three lute MSS. However, the number of pieces available from this early period is somewhat limited.

The CD starts off with Ex te lux oritur, the 13th century celebration of the marriage of Margaret of Norway, sung with harp and lute accompaniment. (Only the sung tune is original, of course.) Ann Heymann has also recorded a nice version of this as a wire-strung harp solo. Another sung piece is the well-known hymn to St. Magnus, Nobilis, humilis. I don't like this version because the structure of the original is a two-part piece in parallel thirds in the Lydian mode. They do it with one part sung, one part played and some added instrumental noodling. The effect is to hide the two-part structure and the interesting harmonies.

There are three 13th century religious pieces played as clarsach solos. There's no evidence that they would have been so played in the 13th century—or that they would not have been, either. In any case they are very pleasant. The long sustain of the clarsach resembles the reverberant medieval cathedrals where they would have been sung, to good effect.

Jumping ahead three centuries, we have five pieces from the 16th century work The Art of Music are played as lute solos. (The cover says "13th century"—obviously a typographical error.) These are intabulations of the original part-music, which was a common practice at the time. The pieces are examples illustrating compositional techniques; nonetheless they demonstrate a certain charm, which is aided by the tasteful performance.

A three-part Mass by Robert Carver (c. 1485-c. 1568), considered Scotland's leading composer of the period, is realized on lute and bray harp. It is not definitely known whether bray pins (causing the harp strings to buzz like a sitar) were ever used in Scotland, although they were popular in Wales. In any case, the unique sound adds interest to the texture of the recording.

The CD concludes with an 18 minute long excerpt from the epic poem Graysteil, which is known to have been performed at the Scottish court in 1497. While the tune exists in the Straloch MS, it seems that only recently have attempts been made to sing the poem to the tune. Andy Hunter does a fine job with the singing. I think it would be more fun to hear it at a concert than on a recording, though.

Considered as a single work, I felt the CD lacked a feel of unity. However, I liked all the individual pieces except Nobilis, humilis. So, considered as a collection of interesting music, it is quite worthwhile. The accompanying notes are also very good. Finally, I liked the cover photo since I myself have photographed the very same ruined castle near Wick in Caithness.

The Baltimore Consort
On the Banks of Helicon: Early Music of Scotland
Dorian DOR-90139
Various instruments including viols, flute, lute, cittern, bagpipe, vocals (alto and soprano).

Music mostly from the Musica Britannica and the Skene MS, plus some from Playford's Dancing Master and the Rogers Virginal Book.

I have mixed feelings about this one. One potentially interesting concept is the inclusion of Chris Norman on flute. He is known for performing traditional music as well as the conservatory stuff. He adds a few nice traditional touches, but also some very Baroque ornamentation that sounds very out of place to me. One thing is that he is said to be playing Renaissance flute, "a wooden cylinder with six finger holes". To me it sounds just like he is playing his usual conical-bore six hole Irish wooden flute. Apparently, however, he does own some replica Renaissance flutes. Since I haven't seen them in concert, it's hard for me to say what is using on which piece. Also, I hear a whistle on some pieces although it's not listed in the notes. I mentioned this on the Net a while back and I received a snippy note from their agent saying it was a "close-miked soprano recorder". Just like the one Mary Bergin plays, I guess. I like the idea of using trad instruments, but I don't see why you need to be ashamed of it. It would be authentic performance practise, believe it or not.

It seems to be the style of Dorian recordings that the notes go on and on about irrelevant topics (such as which artists have performed in the hall in which the recording was done), but provide virtually no information whatever about the music on the recording—in about five different languages. The one exception I've seen is Custer LaRue's recording of Appalachian folksongs described below.

Quite often on Baltimore Consort recordings, the tunes may be old, but the arrangements are modern. They make use of techniques, such playing the bass viol pizzicato, which were not used at the original period. So really they are not much more "authentic" than, say, the Bothy Band. But it's hard to tell this from reading the notes. It's also hinted, unless you read very carefully, that the music comes from huge amounts of original research, when in reality it can be found in a small number of modern editions.

It's not a bad recording. I prefer the Rowallan Consort's version of Come my children dere, but I really liked the guest bagpiper, Edwin George. On the whole, I guess it gets a thumbs-up for listening, but the snobbish and misleading qualities of the notes get on my nerves.

Ronn McFarlane
The Scottish Lute
Dorian DOR-90129

Music almost all from the Skene, Rowallan and Straloch MSS, played on solo lute and mandora (a sort of small high-pitched lute for which the Skene MS was written).

Ronn McFarlane is the lutenist for the Baltimore Consort. On this solo album he goes through quite a lot of the material from the Scottish MSS. The Skene material is played on a supposedly authentic mandora. It sounds very high-pitched and plunky, but I suppose it gives some variety to the recording. The cover picture shows him playing with good "thumb inside" technique. It's my guess this would be the most appropriate style for this music.

Like most Dorian recordings, the notes are extremely uninformative in four different languages. However, this is the best selection of Scottish lute material that is available, as far as I know.

Unfortunately, all the mistakes in the original manuscripts are performed exactly as written. Whoever heard of a jig with 2/8 measures (Gallua Tom)? Most of the other lutenists who perform this piece correct the obvious errors in the written source. And the same wrong chord can be heard in Gypsies Lilt! Some of the ornamentation sounds very inappropriate (about a century later than the music) to my ears. But other than that his playing is quite good. He has some other non-Scottish recordings out as well.

Francesco da MilanoFrancesco da Milano demonstrates good "thumb inside" hand position. This hand position was used during most of the Renaissance. It comes from the position used during the Middle Ages, when lutenists usually played with a plectrum. Around 1600 the hand position changed so that the thumb was more on top. Modern classical guitar hand position is different again, using the tip of the thumb more than the side.

According to Federico Marincola, this painting is in the Pinacoteca Civica in Como, Italy.

Venus with lute Custer LaRue
The True Lover's Farewell: Appalachian Folk Ballads
Dorian DOR-90213
Custer LaRue, soprano, with viols, cittern and lute.

A solo album by Baltimore Consort soprano LaRue, with other band members including Ronn McFarlane.

It's pushing it a bit to include this one, but some of the songs are of Scottish origin and there's lute accompaniment. When I see an recording described as "folk songs by so-and-so, soprano", I would expect some sort of wobbly-pitched shrieking. Actually, Custer avoids obnoxious classical mannerisms, which is good, but she doesn't add much in the way of traditional singing styles either, so the result is fairly bland. The arrangements are okay but have no traditional basis, which is not brought out in the notes. However, the notes are unusually informative for a Dorian release, despite being entirely in English. My favourite is Turtledove (unaccompanied), where she does put in some traditional style ornamentation.

Robin Williamson
Legacy of the Scottish Harpers
Flying Fish FF 70358

Tunes from Playford's Dancing Master, the lute MSS and various other sources, played on nylon-strung harp. Originally recorded 1984.

A nice collection of tunes. The arrangements are fairly plain. After a few tunes it becomes a bit tedious to listen to. I've been told he hadn't been playing that long when it was recorded. Some other instruments would have helped. The CD re-issue has zero notes. There is a second volume of this that came out more recently, but I haven't heard it.

Scottish Early Music Consort
Mary's Music: Songs and Dances from the time of Mary Queen of Scots
Chandos CHAN0529
Viols, recorders, crumhorns and other early instruments, plus vocals.

Not a lute in sight on this recording, except on one track. It's some upper-class repertoire held together by the unifying concept of the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587). In some cases, this amounts to something on the lines of "this is probably the sort of stuff that would have been played at that time". It's nice music, but very much on the polite end of the spectrum.

Lute group Syncope
(Allan Alexander, lute, and Michael Carlito, percussion)
Castles in the Sky: Celtic Music for Lute and Percussion
Koch International Classics 3-7303-2H1

This has the look of a self-produced recording. It's not quite clear whether they mean to go by the name of Syncope or not. A better layout artist might have made things clearer.

The music includes some of the Scottish MS pieces, Carolan tunes, some Irish session tunes and a few originals. Percussion instruments include darabuka, nakers (medieval drums) and tambourine.

If you want to hear lute and percussion, this is the album to get! The concept doesn't seem to come from any particular tradition, but if you're having fun who's going to stop you? The lutenist plays quite well but is sometimes a bit stiff. I would have liked to hear some appropriate ornamentation on the Irish tunes. They sound very plain and naked—as if he learned them out of a book. Morrison's Jig, which for some reason is called Morris Dance (!) is particularly objectionable. The notes say he comes from a classical background, so maybe he did learn them out of a book. On the other hand, he does include his own variations on some of the pieces, which is nice. The title tune is particularly pleasant.

Allan Alexander also publishes books of his lute arrangements.

Additional resources:

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Lighthouse Go to the Standing Stones Site Map (listing of the entire contents of this website)

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