Bannatyne-Scott / Songs of Stevenson

The fun side to Songs of Stevenson, produced and performed by Scots bass Brian Bannatyne-Scott, is in working out the myriad interconnections implicit within its programming. 

There’s the folksong inspiration common to contemporaneous composers Francis George Scott (1880 -1958) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958); the shared friendship and collaborations between Scott, composer Ronald Stevenson (1928 – 2015) and the radical Scots poet Hugh McDiarmid; the progressive Scots musical lineage that seeps from Scott’s earnest passion for a national song style into Stevenson’s charismatic bravado; and of course, the shared surname of the latter and his literary namesake Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS).

There’s even, in the very opening track, an instant foretaste of Vaughan Williams in Stevenson’s Blows the Wind Today, the first in his 4-song cycle of RLS settings, Hills of Home. Echoing the same modal pastoralism as Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, which end the disc, an inherent symmetry is consciously or unconsciously established.

But beyond that first song, its piano imagery delicately and highlighting such poignant lines as “the peewees are crying”, Stevenson releases his fuller, freer personality. A more modernist raw astringency imbues In the Highlands; I saw Rain Falling is terse and turbulent; and finally Requiem, with its extreme vocal demands, opens the floodgates to expressive liberation. 

The reverberating heat of Bannatyne-Scott’s bass voice and the care with which he applies expressive lyrical charm is matched by pianist Jan Waterfield’s coloristic empathy. 

Composed a year after Hills of Home in 1977, Songs from Factories and Fields (words by McDiarmid and the composer himself), present a coarser, earthier side of Stevenson. Written for, but apparently never performed by, the late Scots bass Bill McCue, these are gritty and real, no doubt arising from the fact that McCue, himself, began life as a miner. Black in the Pit, the opening song, is an instant illustration. And there’s a striking echo of McCue’s doughty personality in Bannatyne-Scott’s swarthy performance. 

Providing a bridge between these two cycles are three songs by Scott. They inhabit a simpler, couthier sound world, at least to start with, but that is their charm. Scott’s lyrical eloquence dominates the vocal writing, but one by one they throw up unexpected surprises. After the comforting predictability of Reid E’en, the sensitively charged piano writing adds weight to the lugubrious The Old Fisherman. But the ultimate surprise is The Eemis Stone, its eerie opening chimes reflective of more daring imagery to follow, and an ending as brazenly laconic as Schoenberg.

Bannatyne-Scott ends with the Vaughan Williams songs – again to words by RLS – taken from a live 2003 performance with pianist Alan Jacques. As always, their easeful charm is their strength.
Ken Walton