Classical review: Songs Of Edinburgh

McCall Smith's poetry about Edinburgh's splendour was balanced by digs at the city's foibles. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
McCall Smith's poetry about Edinburgh's splendour was balanced by digs at the city's foibles. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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IT WAS an Edinburgh affair, all right – a world-famous Edinburgh author writing poems about Edinburgh, set to music by an Edinburgh composer and performed by Edinburgh musicians, all taking place in (where else?) Edinburgh.

Alexander McCall Smith/Tom Cunningham, Songs Of Edinburgh

Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh


Alexander McCall Smith had been approached by the city’s Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland to put together a book around historic images of Edinburgh from its enormous archive (which later became his recently published A Work of Beauty).

But so moved was the author by the pictures he uncovered that he composed poems based on eight of them, later working with composer (and frequent collaborator) Tom Cunningham on setting the verse to music, with the resulting song cycle – Songs of Edinburgh – receiving its premiere amid chat in an informal evening at the Queen’s Hall.

But any sense of smugness about the city’s charms was elegantly undercut by McCall Smith’s disarming poetry. It was deceptively simple yet unafraid to point (albeit gently) to some of the city’s failings – the inevitable life paths mapped out for rich and poor in The Uppies and the Doonies, for example, or the compulsion to accompany state occasions with displays of military might in The State Processes.

He neatly balanced reverence for his home city’s splendours with gentle digs at its foibles – not least in the four snobbish ladies who compare notes on their prospective sons-in-law in Jenners Tea Room – with writing that was lyrical yet loaded with meaning.

Lyrical, too, was Cunningham’s beautifully crafted music – tunes were immediately hummable, piano accompaniments caressed or gently chimed. But it couldn’t match the verse’s shifting meanings, opting instead for musical settings that seemed broad, even bald – the hackneyed-sounding contrast of “happy” major and “sad” minor for those Uppies and Doonies, or a rather anonymous waltz that offered little relevance to scientific achievement in Hutton and Higgs.

Cunningham was strong on evocation – in the chilly harmonies of Edinburgh in Winter or the poignant tune of In Candlemaker Row – but his settings needed far more bite and insight to be truly memorable.

Soprano Monica Toll seemed a bit too careful with the music to inject much depth of character into it, but baritone Christopher Nairne was more confident and at ease, with a rich, swelling tone.

Pianist Stuart Hope gave a sensitive, characterful performance, though – it was just a shame that the rather pastel-hued new song cycle couldn’t match the vibrant colours of McCall Smith’s anecdotes about baboons, Liberace and Jane Austen in the event’s second half.

Seen on 09.12.14