The Edge of the Sea

Craig Armstrong

(Modern Recordings)

That this long-gestating project, based on traditional Gaelic Psalm-singing of Scotland’s Western Isles, should appear on a new label run by German musician and producer Christian Kellersmann as part of the mighty BMG empire in the midst of a global health emergency is somehow appropriate. Kellersmann, whose CV tracks back to playing sax with post-punkers Die Doraus und Die Marinas at the start of the 80s, has since worked in contemporary classical music and interacted with box office names including Max Richter, Anna Netrebko, Lang Lang and Rolando Villazon. That is the sort of pedigree and marketing clout that should be behind this release, over fifty minutes of gloriously spiritual music that is specific to the devotional history of Scotland, yet surely global in its potential appeal as the sound of consolation in difficult times.

There are two long suites, teaming the orchestral scoring of Armstrong, played by the Scottish Ensemble, with the Psalm-tunes by Martin that have their roots in a centuries-old tradition. The second of these, the 8-movement Martyrdom began life when the men were introduced by Donald Shaw, director of Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival, and was premiered at an Edinburgh Castle event sponsored by drinks industry giant Diageo six years ago. The mixture of 12-strong congregation with Precentor and solo voice and string ensemble is strong and distinctive, but its best achievement is to stand as the template for the more substantial work, Ballantyne, that was first heard at An Lanntair on Lewis in 2016 and was recorded with its predecessor at Dundee’s Caird Hall two years later.

Armstrong is best known for his film score work, particularly with director Baz Luhrmann, and arranging for pop records by chart-toppers including Madonna and Massive Attack, as well as for his own sporadic and always atmospheric albums. He brought his regular conductor of choice, Cecilia Weston, to what may be his most personal project to date. Ballantyne was written, at Martin’s suggestion, as a memorial for Armstrong’s devoutly Christian father, a former steel-worker who became a lay preacher in the Church of Scotland in retirement. With traditional music fiddler Duncan Chisholm joining the Ensemble on one movement, Ballantyne has some stunning individual moments, and perhaps some, like Alison Lawrance’s cello feature, Nightfall, that could stand alone, but it is in its superbly-conceived entirety that it really impresses. Even more so than Martyrdom, the integration of the solo voices of Martin’s daughter Isobel Ann Martin and Precentor Calum Iain Macleod with the vocal ensemble and Armstrong’s orchestration is a musical journey that, for once, justifies that overused metaphor.

Beautifully packaged with artwork by Scotland’s Dalziel + Scullion, The Edge of the Sea is a truly exquisite release.
Keith Bruce