There are a number of cellists plying at least part of their trade in folk music. Some have their name on the front covers of albums, others are more often hidden away in the back. Su-A Lee is one of the latter but she has appeared on more albums in her thirty years in the business than many more famous names. In Scotland she’s the go-to cellist. She says in her notes that playing solo is not really her thing hence her first “solo” album, Dialogues, a collection of fifteen compositions each featuring a guest musician who worked with her on the selection and arrangement of the music.
The album is divided in three acts, The Setup, The Development and The Resolution which slowly makes sense as you listen. The first act begins with ‘Baroque Suite’ written by and featuring Donald Shaw. It features three dance forms and a slow air and is thus a proper foundation for what is to come. ‘Oblivion’ features bandoneon player Carel Kraayenhof. If you haven’t heard a bandoneon before, let me tell you that it’s a mighty instrument that can well stand up to Su-a’s full throated cello. Finally in this section we have ‘Waltzska For Su-a’ and very modern sounding piece composed by and featuring fellow cellist Natalie Haas.
The second act begins with one of my favourite big Scottish ballads, ‘Mill O’Tifty’s Annie’, sung by Karine Polwart and as Karine gets drawn into the tragic story the reason for the separation of setup and development becomes more and more apparent. I must confess that I played it over twice before moving on. We are now into the meat of Scottish traditional music and the stories behind it. James Ross’ ‘Stroma’ was inspired by an island off the Caithness coast and Phil Cunningham’s lovely tune ‘The Wedding’ exists in a long tradition of writing music for celebrations.
With the theme of the second act well established Su-a’s partner Hamish Napier plays a strathspey and reel – his own compositions – on piano and flutes and Duncan Chisholm leads a mournful slow air, ‘Prince Charlie’s Last View Of Scotland’. Patsy Reid brings us back to the dance music which is at Scotland’s heart with two strathspeys and two reels and to end the section Julie Fowlis sings a Gaelic lament. In this act Su-a has not only shared her musical friendships but explored pretty much all the expressions of Scottish traditional music. There isn’t a waulking song but you can’t have everything.
The Resolution is, I suppose a glimpse towards the future, or perhaps Su-a’s musical future. We have a traditional Finnish waltz; a planxty by O’Carolan featuring the harp of Maeve Gilchrist; Jenna Reid’s selection of a Shetland tune by Tom Anderson and Donald Grant’s ‘The Witch Of Leanachan’ featuring the voices of everyone who played on the album. That’s not quite all, however, and Dialogues ends with a solo setting of ‘Ae Fond Kiss’.
I have to say that Dialogues is a really lovely album and Su-a and her friends have done a remarkable job in presenting their views of Scottish music. Even more than that, it’s a wonderful exposition of what a cello can do in the hands of a master (mistress?) when given the space.
Artist’s website: www.sualee.com
I haven’t found a video from the new album, though there are lots of others so this is Su-a with Hamish Napier playing ‘The Tree Of The Return’: