Robert Burns: The Complete Songs, Volume 1 (CD review)

Tony Cuffe, Rod Paterson, Janet Russell, Billy Ross, Ian F. Benzie, Christine Kydd, Alan Reid; various accompanists. Linn Records CKD 801.

"My way is: I consider the poetic sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression, then chuse my theme, begin one stanza, when that is composed--which is generally the most difficult part of the business--I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom, humming every now and then the air with the verses I have framed. When I feel my Muse beginning to jade, I retire to the solitary fireside of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper, swinging, at intervals, on the hind-legs of my elbow chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my pen goes." --Robert Burns

The Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns (1759-1796) wrote hundreds of poems and songs and as a folklorist collected and sometimes revised many old Scottish tunes. In the mid 1990's Linn Records decided to issue all of Burns's songs on CD, completing a set of twelve volumes, which they are now re-releasing. The present disc is Volume One in that set.

The singers are Tony Cuffe, Rod Paterson, Janet Russell, Billy Ross, Ian F. Benzie, Christine Kydd, and Alan Reid; the accompanists are Davy Catanach, Norman Chalmers, Jack Evans, Jonny Hardie, Billy Jackson, John McCusker, and Buzzby McMillan. Volume one contains the following songs performed by the singers in parentheses, plus assorted spare accompaniment including guitar, djembe, concertina, bodhran, whistle, shakers, mbira, mandolin, fiddle, cittern, and harp.

 1. "When rosy May comes in wi flowers" (Tony Cuffe)
 2. "O that I had ne'er been married" (Rod Paterson)
 3. "Wee Willie Gray" (Tony Cuffe & Rod Paterson)
 4. "O wha'll mow me now?" (Janet Russell)
 5. "Brose and butter" (Billy Ross)
 6. "The wintry west extends his blast" (Ian F. Benzie)
 7. "Sweet Afton" (Tony Cuffe)
 8. "Duncan Gray" (Janet Russell & Christine Kydd)
 9. "The winter it is past" (Billy Ross)
10. "Gudeen to you kimmer" (Christine Kydd & Rod Paterson)
11. "Kellyburn Braes" (Alan Reid)
12. "The slave's lament" (Christine Kydd)
13. "O aa the airts the wind can blaw" (Rod Paterson
14. "What can a young lassie do wi an auld man" (Ian F. Benzie)
15. "Ay waukin, O" (Tony Cuffe)
16. "O, steer her up an haud her gaun" (Rod Paterson)
17. "The Cooper O Cuddy" (Tony Cuffe)
18. "O, rattlin, roarin Willie" (Rod Paterson)
19. "To the weaver's gin you go" (Janet Russell)
20. "Lady Mary Ann" (Billy Ross)
21. "Montgomerie's Peggy" (Ian F. Benzie)
22. "The lea-rigg" (Rod Paterson)
23. "Yestreen I had a pint o wine" (Tony Cuffe)

If you already own or have heard any of the songs in this Burns collection, you know how successful it is. However, if you are not already familiar with it, there are three things you should know: First, Burns wrote a good deal of his material in a Scottish dialect; this "common touch" is a part of what has made him so popular not only with the Scottish people but with the world at large. But it also means that if you don't know or understand the dialect, you might not understand the words of the songs; and Linn Records do not provide lyrics in these reissues.

Tony Cuffe
Second, the performers on the album do not attempt to smooth out or popularize the songs. These are straightforward performances by folksingers who are trying to be as honest in their presentations as possible, offering the songs in their original, occasionally unpolished settings. The singing is always good, but it is not of the cultured, operatically trained kind; instead, it is singing of a more informal style, perfectly suited to the needs of the music.

Third, this first volume in the set is only a small part of the whole, one-twelfth of the set. If you're looking for a "Best of Burns" album, you won't find it here. Of the twenty-three songs on the program, probably only the avid Robert Burns fan or collector would recognize or even appreciate all the titles. Therefore, if you are like me, you may be surprised and delighted by a good deal of material new to you. And if you don't see your favorite Robert Burns song here, look to the other discs in the series.

Favorites? Sure. "O that I ne'er been married" is humorous and outgoing. The duet of Cuffe and Paterson works charmingly on "Wee Willie Gray." Janet Russell's unaccompanied voice on "O wha'll mow me now" is pleasant, indeed. Ian F. Benzie's robust, mellow voice does justice to "The wintry west extends his blast." And Kidd and Paterson do a great a capella job on "Gudeen to you kimmer," even if I didn't have a clue what they were saying. OK, I liked them all; what can I say?

Producer Fred Freeman and engineer Calum Malcolm recorded the songs back in 1995 at Castle Cava Studios, Pencaitland, Scotland, and, as I said at the beginning, the folks at Linn Records are now reissuing the complete set in twelve individual volumes. The voice in each selection appears fairly closely miked and firmly defined. The instrumental accompaniment is very slightly less prominent, as it should be, yet just as well delineated. The result sounds well balanced, well centered, and realistic. Linn always do a good job with their recordings, and this one is no exception.

As recently as 2009, by the way, Scottish Television (STV) conducted a public vote on who was "The Greatest Scot" of all time. The winner was Robert Burns.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa