No pain, no gain;Arts;Music

25th June 1999 at 01:00
'A BURNS SEQUENCE'. By John Gardner. CD and cassette by the National Youth Choir of Scotland and Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Christopher Bell.

The painful beginnings of this disc have become quite well known: a power cut during the recording session left the choir 15 minutes short of a CD, and pound;6,000 poorer by the time the orchestra had been re-booked and the choir re-assembled for a session three months later. The delay prevented the disc being on sale before Christmas - not very good news for any recording venture, but particularly damaging for an inaugural disc whose sales are intended to boost the fledgling choir's revenue. However, this term the disc was finally released, and it can be judged on its merits, not its history.

The choice of repertoire is both new and old, with strong Scottish connections, none of it familiar. The disc takes its title from a setting of eight Burns poems by John Gardner, first performed by the Strathclyde Schools Chorus in 1995. They vary in style from inspired church anthem rafter-raising to folkish tunefulness with a Mahlerian edge, all punctuated by a strong percussive element. It is immediately obvious that the discipline and training of the choir is superb. The close harmony is razor-sharp, the diction precise. A verse of "Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary" is missing from the accompaning booklet, but every word is clearly audible - quite something for a large choir.

The second work on the disc is shorter but more substantial. As Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University, Kenneth Leighton was a dominant figure in the musical life of Scotland. His "Hymn to Matter" is typically robust, an uncompromising musical setting of a peculiar text that blesses "harsh matter, barren soil, stubborn rock". This is a very different musical climate to that of Gardner, and one that exposes, for the first time, a lack of gravitas in the lower voices of the choir, however carefully they sing in tune.

The disc ends with six songs for female voices by John Blackwood McEwen, composer of much atmospheric orchestral music including the dark-hued Border Ballads, but here with an emphatically sunny disposition. Sung to the accompaniment of a rather distant piano, the trilling of these jolly songs has something of the atmosphere of a Sunday school picnic.

CD pound;10, cassette pound;7 + pound;1 pamp;p from NYCoS, 18 Polmont Park, Polmont, by Falkirk, FK2 0XT

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