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Single play

MacCunn: Land of the Mountain and the Flood; The Ship o' the Fiend; The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow; Jeanie Deans - excerpts; The Lay of the Last Minstrel BBC Scottish SO / Martyn Brabbins (Hyperion CDA 66815); William Lawes: Consort Setts for 5 & 6 viols; Songs etc Catherine Bott, Paul Nicholson, Fretwork (Virgin Veritas VC 5 45147 2)
Sir Walter Scott's bardic manner in music. That's Hamish MacCunn. The name alone evokes sight and sound of glens and firths and blasted heaths. But then on come the tunes, each bearing the Scottish vernacular with pride. Celtic heroes pound the pages of his three orchestral ballads - not least the most famous of them (and the only one previously recorded), his brilliant teenage essay Land of the Mountain and the Flood (after Scott) - but in the lyric second subjects highland grandeur is tempered with the scent of heather after the rain. And just when you're thinking "subtle it ain't", along comes the searching opening of The Ship o' the Fiend, horn and oboe darkly engaged. Jeanie Deans, a "grand opera" in Victorian terms, is probably closer to "grand operetta" from where we stand now. Highlights of the highlights are undoubtedly Effie's home-spun ballads, sweetly sung by Lisa Milne. Her lullaby, "Sleep for the day is done", is extraordinary for the intensity of its harmonies shifting in and out of focus. But over and above all, Scottish pride rules. Lend an ear to The Lay of the Last Minstrel, its uninhibited final chorus lustily dispatched through tumultuous violin arpeggios. MacCunn himself is the very re-embodiment of the poet. ES

Received opinion is that when it came to word-setting, William Lawes was not the equal of his brother Henry. This time received opinion may be right: the four Robert Herrick settings recorded here are charming, and charmingly sung, but they don't add much to Herrick's dulcet love songs. But the bulk of this disc is taken up by Lawes's viol works, and here we enter another world - music of astonishing intensity and audacity. Forget the "important precursor of Purcell" label and just appreciate the Consort Setts as the powerfully original things they are.

Fretwork are something special too - far removed from the worthy, academically scrupulous but deadly dull viol recitals of the past. The smallness of the sound (even in these intimate recordings) may initially jar ears brought up on modern string ensembles - but only for a moment, surely. The musicianship, vitality and penetrating expression are quickly evident. The neglect of Lawes in his own country is inexcusable; this disc will tell you why. SJ