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Scottish composer Stuart MacRae releases a mostly vocal album for Australian mezzo Lotte Betts-Dean.

Scottish composer Stuart MacRae (Inverness, 1976) is one of the most difficult composers of his generation to pigeonhole. His orchestral oeuvre includes symphonies and operas in many different styles, but his interest in choral music has always stood out. In 2021, MacRae was able to hear a recording of a performance by Australian mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean of his composition The Lif of this World, MacRae’s 2008 adaptation of an anonymous text written in Old English. Amazed by the way the singer shaped her phrases and ornamentation, he immediately began to devise new works for her voice, either to be sung a cappella or in very light arrangements. This has resulted in Earth, thy cold is keen, another eight vocal works completed in less than two years, which again demonstrate MacRae’s versatility as a composer, encompassing both pieces of folkloric simplicity alongside complex contemporary techniques – as in elided compressed and O Earth, lie heavily – that were already familiar from his earlier work. Of the nine works in total in which Betts-Dean takes part, several are for solo voice and in others the accompaniment is very light: MacRae himself playing the harmonium (an old instrument that belonged to his grandmother and with which MacRae composed his very first compositions as a child) or applying an electronic treatment to the amplified voice of the Australian. Four of them also feature the Scottish duo Sequoia, formed by violinist Alice Rickards and cellist Sonia Cromarty.

The disc, which was recorded live between 8-10 November 2022 at St. Cuthbert’s Parish Church in Edinburgh, is completed by three pieces in which Betts-Dean is joined by the Sequoia duo, as well as a new recording of The Lif of this World, the composition at the origin of the album, which MacRae wrote as part of The NMC Songbook, an extensive album with which the British label and charity NMC Recordings – specialising in recordings by living British composers – celebrated its 20th anniversary: The first piece composed by MacRae after the epiphany he had with Betts-Dean and his interpretation of The Lif of this World was The Captive, an eighteen-minute work in three movements, inspired by a short story by the English romantic writer Emily Brontë. The first and third movements of The Captive are backed by Sequoia’s instrumental and MacRae’s harmonium, providing the folk and gothic character that is repeated in other pieces, such as Chaid mo Dhonnachadh ‘na bheinn -which is not a composition by MacRae, but a traditional Gaelic song, from the Isle of Skye – or the two pieces based on poems by the British poet Christina Rossetti -sister of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti-, Earth, thy cold is keen -which gives the album its title- and O Earth, lie heavily, treated very differently musically from each other. More experimental is wodwo, a vocal piece but without words – although the title refers to the poem of the same title by Ted Hughes – which also employs field recordings, mainly bird songs, and musical fragments of harmonium. This is a new, much more ethereal recording of the track with which MacRae opened his album Terra Firma, also released this year, in January. Between medieval, folk and fully contemporary, the album is a rarity, which is a positive qualifier, due to its originality and timelessness and the diversity of paths it opens up.