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Allan MacDonald & Neil JohnstoneAllan MacDonald & Neil Johnstone
Album: The Bruce 700
Label: Bruce 700
Tracks: 12
Website: http://www.birnamcd.com

The Bruce 700 is a suite commissioned by Stirling Council to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn; it was premièred in Stirling's Albert Halls in June 2014, and here receives its recorded debut, in its second-ever performance which was captured live at Celtic Connections in January 2015.

The suite is the culmination of - and developments from - two earlier commissions in the form of celebrations in music and song: "The Wallace" in 2005, and "Robert De Brus" in 2014. The Bruce 700 was composed, arranged and orchestrated by piper Allan MacDonald and cellist Neil Johnstone, and demonstrates their skill in working with a larger canvas than the more intimate ones for which they've been hitherto known. That's not to say there's a lack of intimacy here, for the intricate inner details (and individual solo parts) are revealed and sensitively spotlit within the broader sound picture. Although it does contain sequences that deliberately depict events before, during and after the battle itself, it's billed as "an orchestrated progression of music" rather than a programmatic work per se, although one could say that The Bruce 700 is cast somewhat in the episodic mould of one - such as a Richard Strauss tone-poem (Ein Heldenleben), perhaps - while also possessing much of the aura of a film score. There's a real sense of wide-screen spectacle, which stems as much from the ambitiousness of the work's scope as from its fulsome scoring (employing highland and small pipes; pipe band; large orchestra comprising fiddles, cellos and percussion; soprano saxes, whistles, clarsach, double bass; massed choirs and four solo singers - Griogair Labhraidh, Kathleen MacInnes, Rod Paterson and Allan MacDonald). The named players comprise a veritable who's-who of notable Scottish musicians, including Aidan O'Rourke, Patsy Reid, Lauren MacColl, Lori Watson, Innes Watson, Dick Lee, Fraser Fifield, Donald Hay, Mary MacMaster, Duncan Lyall and Iain MacDonald - and of course Allan and Neil themselves.

The suite plays continuously, but the dozen sections are (usefully) separately banded should one wish to isolate any of the high points such as the stirring Brosnachadh (Incitement To Battle), Caoineadh/Keening (track 7), the Lament (track 8) or the choral finale Saoirsa (Freedom). There are moments during the suite which are audibly inspired by traditional Scottish music (although there are no direct quotes), and other moments which are equally inspired by film music (the "disharmony and mayhem" of the battle scene, for instance). The scale, spectacle and splendour of the music are well conveyed by the excellently graded live recording; a triumph in every sense.

David Kidman