Su-A Lee – Dialogues: Album Review

Is this classical or folk, either or neither, and does it matter? Consummate playing, with a host of top-notch collaborators, sees Su-A Lee as one to keep an ear on.

Release date: 2nd December 2022

Label: Sky Child

Format: CD / Digital

Cello, cello, cello, big juicy cello, what’s not to like? The answer, quite clearly, is nothing. Plus a great deal more, with this late arrival ticking every box for this happy listener. Regular readers will be familiar with the fact that this has been very much a year to celebrate the renaissance of the string quartet in folk-based music, especially Scottish trad based, and Lee has popped up on many a recording this year, notably Megan Henderson’s classy Pilgrim Souls, if then playing a musical saw! But, as Lee, points out in the sleeve notes, the cello is no shy debutante to traditional music, it being the sole accompaniment of choice to the virtuoso fiddle or box player, long ahead the guitar taking the rhythmic pride of place. And she sets out to prove that point here, duetting with a string of musicians over successive tracks, being joined by a cream of the current crop of the barley: Duncan Chisholm, Phil Cunningham, Donald Shaw and more, including the Scots singer, Karine Polwart, and her Gaelic counterpart, Julie Fowlis. Oh, and there is some guy called Hamish Napier on flute, who she just happens to be the wife of. (If you are unfamiliar with Hamish Napier, it is about time you weren’t!) Lee has a day job as a classical cellist, for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra amongst others, not least the celebrated string ensemble, Mr Fall’s Chamber, who have graced many a recording or performance across innumerable genres and styles. She has also sawed in a veritable list of who’s who’s to her personal cv, with work on albums by artists as varied as Eliza Carthy, Eric Clapton and Max Richter over this past decade or so. In a 30-year career, this is her first solo outing, and has been well worth the wait.

The project opens with the pairing of Capercaillie lynchpin, Donald Shaw, playing piano and harmonium. Arguably, it is one of the more classical, in style, pieces presented here, not that it isn’t plenty lively. Called Baroque Suite, I guess that is the label on the tin, and the pair weave sinuously, building up speed and then down again, over four movements, March, Gavotte, Reel and Slow Air, the mood very much of a grand ball at the Laird’s Mansion in the 1800s. Shaw’s piano is a sprightly complement to Lee’s chewy, chunky tones and it is a promising start. And should you wonder as to the title of the album, Dialogues rather than Duets, go read more of the gloriously detailed sleeve notes, offering up discussion and explanations of each of the tunes with each of her musical partners.

Bandoneon provides the next course, that gloriously complicated squeezebox, with full opposite sets/rows of buttons, each playing a different note in or out of the squeeze. A bit like playing four keyboards at once, and most celebrated in the work of Astor Piazzolla and the Argentinian tango. Carel Kraayenhof is a master thereof and it is a Piazolla tune the duo here plays, Milonga (or Oblivian). The two instruments circle each other, moodily and warily, conjuring up intrigue and subterfuge. The livelier Waltzka For Su-A follows, a hybrid, had you guessed, between a waltz and a polka, a vehicle for paired cellos, Natalie Haas the second player. The players each bring different nuances of their instruments to bear, one plucking, the other chopping out chords, with a melody sneaking out from first one and then the other. Dancing music for another century than this.

Some singing now, Karine Polwart’s purity bedded well within the garland of strings. Mill O’Tifty’s Annie, perhaps better known as Andrew Lammie, is the song, and it is a maudlin delight. The pianist James Ross is someone who bridges the worlds of classical with folk, so his slot, represented by his composition, Stroma, is an evocative representation of, literally, an island in the stream, the stream being the sea, dark and mighty, off the Caithness shore. Largely improvised, if it seems hard to credit, such is the empathy between the two. This is followed by a personal favourite, as Phil Cunningham steps up with a reprise of his own tune, The Wedding, way back from his 1989 album, The Palomino Waltz. Already a beautiful melody, it is taken to new heights here, the accordion and cello wedded gloriously. Simply stunning.

Given Cunningham re-dedicated the last track to Lee’s own wedding, it is fitting that her husband should be the next guest, bringing his wooden flutes and piano to a lively set entitled Paths, a strathspey and a reel, that lifts back the mood. The running order has been carefully chosen to avoid any risk of progressive sadness or solemnity, characteristics each that cello can sometimes draw you into, and Napier’s flute is especially jolly to listen to. But, yes, with Duncan Chisholm being a master of the mournful fiddle lament, add him to the deeper moan of cello, and Prince Charlie’s Last View of Scotland has never sounded so magisterially gloomy. Or better. Sticking with a fiddle accompaniment, Patsy Reid is next up, and it is fascinating to have the juxtaposition, the two styles of playing the same instrument so very different. Dance Tunes of Athole it is called, two strathspeys and two reels, the former Reid’s forte and justly so, the almost military precision of her playing quite striking. These two have a long back story, often finding themselves as half a string quartet for any number of special commissions for Glasgow’s famed Celtic Connections festival.

By and large, Julie Fowlis is a lily with no need for gilding, but adding cello to her voice certainly gives it a sparkle, the melancholy timbres highlighting her delicate textures. Double-tracked cellos and double-tracked vocals combine for the strikingly atmospheric air, Mo Rù Geal Òg, and it is another standout track. From doyen of Gaelic song to scandi classical superstar, Pekka Kuusisto is not a name my tastes have led me to, and this is probably the most orthodox and least folkie selection here, even if it, Lundgren, is based on a traditional Finnish waltz. Irish harp is forever associated with 17th-century blind harpist, Turlough O’Carolan, so little surprise that Maeve Gilchrist chose one of his tunes for the two of them to play. Perhaps a little polite for me, in the version here, a rare flagging moment across this lengthy disc.

More fiddlers to the fray, as first Jenna Reid, the Shetland focus of Blazing Fiddles, duets a slow air, Mareel, which floats in and out like the tide, always the same and always different. However, any sense of still lulled thereby is swiftly dashed by the spooky textures of The Witch Of Leanachan, where Lee and album co-producer Andrea Gobbi get to play a little with effects, splicing in imperceptible snatches of vocal. Her co-player here is Donald Grant, and this piece injects one of the album’s pindrop moments of all, during a coda in which a chorale of all the accompanists gradually swell in, goosebumps aplenty. Finally, and to end, it is down to Lee alone to play out with a memorable and moving arrangement of Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss. Barely over two minutes long, it is the shortest on the record but, strangely, also the one, along with the Cunningham and Fowlis contributions, that has be returning to play, time and time again.

Quite unlike anything I have heard this year, this masterful selection is quietly compelling, adding further momentum to the role of the cello. This is what she says about it, herself: “Playing solo is not really my thing. I am energised by working with other people.” Lee has the classical training and the folk sensitivities to have notice taken of this statement and her work. More power to her bow.

Rather than presenting a song from this set, here is another flavour of this in-demand player, in an intimate home concert setting with her husband, Hamish Napier, made for/at Glasgow’s COP26 event:

Su-A Lee online: website / facebook

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