Concerto Caledonia currently lead the field in historically-informed performances of Scottish music, and bring to their work awareness of both classical and folk idioms that lift their projects with a bewitching combination of concert hall refinement, ceilidh-house energy and here, 18th century wit.
18th century wig-maker, poet, playwright, publisher and all-round cultural entrepreneur Allan Ramsay is receiving a fresh burst of interest these days, in academic research thanks to the University of Glasgow AHRC project to produce Ramsay’s collected works. This latest album from Glasgow-based Concerto Caledonia is informed by this research. David McGuinness, Director of the ensemble, is a co-investigator on the Ramsay project, and many in his team for this project are also active practice-led researchers into 18th century drawing room style. A feature of the release is an accompanying liner-note which provides listeners with a guide to period sources alongside notes on individual songs.
The contents of this disc might be described as a sandwich (although that delicacy is both lamentably English, and, when Ramsay’s anthologies were written, not yet labelled as such): tracks 1 to 6 and 11 to 17 form the ‘bread’ of the Tea Table Miscellany (1723), with the filling, tracks 7 to 10, comprising selected ‘sangs’ and some framing dialogue from Ramsay’s musical play (or, ballad opera) The Gentle Shepherd (1725-29), presented in the order they appear in the play. The “programming” element in play here makes a strong case for buying the album as a planned collection rather than just a loose bundle of separate tracks: listen to this in running order, and there is a logic to the order of service. We start with a song lamenting Scottish fortunes at the low ebb of the South See Bubble; we emerge at the end of the meal with a jolly ‘Toast’. Ramsay himself might applaud this use of songs to lift Scottish emotions from despondency to joy. To be fair, tea tables normally have that effect on me as well.
Ramsay’s publications named the tunes to be used but didn’t provide the music. So, the project has gone to a range of contemporary sources to flesh this out, which allows them to vary how these are presented. Not all tracks are vocal ‘songs’: some are presented entirely instrumentally, providing variety and a chance to digest Ramsay’s rich blend of poetry and music. As McGuinness points out in his liner note, 18th century drawing room contexts were varied, and this gives the team a license to explore different approaches. A well-stocked tea-table has biscuits, cakes and scones as well as savoury snacks.
Apart from the interest of the material itself, this reviewer enjoyed the blend of talent displayed in performance, which brings together musicians from both sides of what modern listeners might imagine to be a folk music/classical music divide, acknowledging that this division would not have been evident to 18th century people. The guests round this table are individually great entertainers, each contributing in unique ways to the conversation.
Instrumentalists Aaron McGregor and Tim Macdonald (violins) demonstrate how the violin was the essential bridge between Italy and Scottish folk melodies. Alongside some very fine idiomatic fiddling, the flute also gets a strong advocacy through Hamish Napier’s sensitive playing, while continuo contributions from Lucia Capellaro (cello and bass viol), Alex McCartney (theorbo, archlute and guitar) and director David McGuinness on the harpsichord weave elegant harmonies through the various tracks.
Vocalists Mhairi Lawson, Iona Fyfe, Thomas Walker, Alasdair Roberts and Seonaid Aitken each have unique voices within the period style which bring a sense of lively variety to the songs. Brianna Robertson-Kirkland, who is cited as a co-editor of the musical sources, also appears briefly and amusingly in track 9, in the form of ‘auld Aunty’s cry’. Robertson-Kirkland writes elsewhere about 18th century female music culture, and her “casting” in this role is maybe a wee sly joke in the context of the ‘tea-table’ miscellany, which packaged Scottish songs for a growing market of female domestic amateurs.
Hailing from Aberdeenshire, Iona Fyfe has been recognised as one of Scotland’s finest folksingers, winning in 2021 the MG Alba Scots Trad Award Musician of the Year trophy – the first singer to do so. Fyfe’s light, crystal-pure, expressive voice makes Ramsay’s at times rather archaic Scots sound fresh and persuasive; this is a singer who really knows how to communicate using the native tongue. Her songs include the opening track, “A South Sea Sang”, which conveys the sorrows of the South Sea Bubble financial crisis with affecting poignancy. Never have investments sounded so beautiful.
Thomas Walker is, like Fyfe, a graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – although originally as a tuba first study performer rather than singing; the focus on voice came with a period in the Royal College of Music in London. His work portfolio is baroque / classical, and his Scots sounds more Anglicised than Fyfe’s, but in partnership with Napier’s winsome flute in “Love Inviting Reason”, he makes a convincing Enlightenment-period lover. It’s worth remembering (spoiler alert) that at least one of Ramsay’s pastoral shepherds is really a nobleman in disguise! Notes advise that the tune to this song was originally Irish, unusual for Ramsay, and was originally transcribed from the playing of an Irish harpist.
Track 4, ‘Auld Rob Moris’, brings us a dramatic dialogue in ballad form, with mezzo Seonaid Aiken taking the role of ‘Mither’ and Iona Fyfe responding as ‘Doughter’, which anticipates the more fully developed dramatic situations of The Gentle Shepherd songs, and reminds us that ballad culture had dialogic songs long before these were fleshed out by ballad operas. Fifer Aitken is particularly known for her cross-genre violin playing, ranging from the Grit orchestra to the Scottish Opera orchestra, and has background expertise in gypsy fiddling. Her interpretations of ballad repertoire both here and throughout this disc are lively and engaging.
Alasdair Roberts is another singer with a folk rather than a classical hinterland, and the timbre of his voice, which to my ears sounds like very finely ground, well-polished grit, is great fun particulary in the curious song ‘Up in the Air’: a very tastefully rendered reflection on hard drinking and alcoholic hallucination, stronger drink than tea at any rate.
Walker and Fyfe are joined in track 8 by Mhairi Lawson, a superb classical singer, but also another voice that moves easily between Scots and elegant classical style. ‘When first my dear Laddie gade to the Green Hill’ featured in Act 2 of The Gentle Shepherd. This is a love duet between Peggie (Lawson) and Patie (Walker), introduced by a brief spoken prologue from Fyfe. The selection of vignettes presented by these moments in the middle of the album give a good overview of the kind of amorous exchanges found more generally in this play.
Other highlights include a lovely rendering of ‘The Lass of Petties Mill’, originally found in the Balcarres Lute Book, played here by Alex McCartney on the archlute; and a set of variations for violin, theorbo and harpsichord composed by John Clerk of Penicuik, one of Enlightenment Edinburgh’s greatest amateur talents.
But really, it’s all just lovely. And funded by the AHRC Research Council, a really interesting way to package academic research. Buy it and listen with glad ears. And a cup of tea. And an anachronous sandwich.
Further Reading and Listening
- Concerto Caledonia, Shepherds and Tea Tables: Songs of Allan Ramsay (2022) (from Bandcamp.
- David McGuinness, Shepherds and Tea Tables: Songs of Allan Ramsay (2022) liner note.
- Concerto Caledonia homepage.
- Seonaid Aiken’s homepage.
- Iona Fyfe’s homepage.
- Alasdair Roberts’s homepage.
- Brianna Robertson-Kirkland’s homepage.
- Thomas Walker’s homepage.
Aaron McGregor (violin) – see here
Tim MacDonald (violin) – see here
Hamish Napier (flute) – see here
Lucia Capellaro (cello, bass viol) – see here
Alex McCartney (theorbo, guitar, archlute) – see here