The Complete Songs of Robert Burns - Inverness Courier

It has enough material to let you listen to a different song every day of the year, has a cast list of talent which reads like a who's who of Scottish music and comes in a 12-volume, 13 CD set, seven years in the making. Linn Records' efforts to record all of the National Bard's songs is breathtaking in its ambition and culturally laudable - there are many schools, libraries and colleges and, of course, Burns Clubs, for whom this will be an invaluable resource.

But aside from the academic interest, does this collection work for the listener?

The answer is obviously yes, with the proviso that no-one in their right senses is going to attempt to listen to all 13 CDs in sequence; like the best encyclopaedias, this is something for dipping into for entertainment and edification. Obviously, you cannot quibble about the quality of the lyrics if you can get your ears around the archaic Scots. As with his English counterparts, all human life is here; love, politics, sex, religion, proto-environmental issues, human relationships.

Even two centuries on, Burns's forthright way with words is enough to earn one of those "Parental Guidance" stickers more commonly found on rap and heavy metal albums. Robert Burns as the Eminem of Enlightenment Scotland? Well, he certainly had the same knack of annoying the moral majority, but alongside that is a joy for life and a concern for fellow humans and other creatures that keeps Burns in his exaulted position.

With 20-plus songs on every disc, each contains a mixture of the well-known and more obscure. it might deprive the more casual listener of a chance to collect Burns's "greatest hits"on a handy single CD, but the more adventurous will welcome the chance to hear some of the less frequently visited songs of the canon.

There are plently of familiar words, although not always to a familiar tune, and conversely familiar tunes matched to unusual lyrics. The production by Dr Fred Freeman mercifully avoids the heavy orchestration which too often sentimentalises burns's words or needless electronica that would distract from them, and keeps faith not only with Burns, but the musical tradition he took from and gave so much to. there are instruments Burns would never have known - djembe, banjo, bouzouki - but he would perhaps recognise and approve of the feel of the music they create, deliberately recorded in few takes to retain its spontaneity.

Helping keep the listener hooked is a generation spanning selection of voices employed to sing Burns's words. The Old Guard includes ex Corrie Ronnie Browne, whose reflective reading of Auld Lang Syne is a world away from the alcohol fuelled Hogmanay anthem we are most familiar with. Also featured are such luminaries asa Jim Reid, Tich Frier, Ian Bruce and Rod Paterson, who is given plenty of opportunity to deomsrate why he is so highly rated as an interpreter of Burns, Elspeth Cowie, Mae McKenna, Ivan Drever and Christine Kydd. Newer voices, Aimee Leonard, Corrina Hewat and perhaps especially Jim Malcolm and Deaf Shepherd's John Morran, prove that the art of singing Burns songs is no lost craft.

The instrumental talent is no less impressive, with Wolfstone's Duncan Chisholm, guitarist Tony McManus, and various members of Capercaillie and the Battlefield Band in a compliment of musicians so impressive it is almost easier to list those not playing.

Sadly, the roster includes some who did not live to see the project's completion, notably Tony Cuffe and Davy Steele. their loss makes their contributions, including Steele's lovely version of that greatest of all love songs, My Luve's Like A Red, Red Rose all the mroe poignant.

For anyone with the kind of interest in the Scottish tradition or Robert Burns, this is an essential purchase.

Inverness Courier
28 February 2003