Scotland's song tradition functions as a kind of alternative history to the one the British began rewriting around 1603. Keeping that history alive is part of Glasgow Phoenix Choir's agenda to travel the world with its arrangements of Scottish songs. Yesterday at the National Presbyterian Church, the group appeared with conductor Peter S. Shand.
One of the richest sources of these folk traditions is the Hebrides islands. The hushed, transparent mood of "Isle of Mull" was expressed in the briefest form with the simplest of means. Also a delight was the vivid work song "Cockle Gatherer," wrought from random syllables that dovetail seamlessly into the melody.
Scotland's tragic past has given rise to thousands of tragic ballads. Bitter, biting songs such as "Such a Parcel of Rogues" are easily connected to 1960s protest music. Soprano Meg Davis, one of two Americans in the choir, gave a clear, definite reading in a sparing vibrato that suited the song's despondent mood.
"Border Song" injects a note of optimism into Scotland's tearful ballad tradition. J.H. Mauder's block-chord harmonization gave this song the psychological effect of a banner waving, an announcement of victory over the British.
Countless arrangers of folk songs have treated their tunes as if they were hymns, subjecting them to conventional 19th-century triadic harmony. But the Glasgow selected compositions such as Ralph Hunter's "Five Nursery Rhymes," whose naughty dissonances exploded the tired formulas. Hugh S. Roberton's hushed, transparent "Dream Angus" stood out as the afternoon's most moving experience.