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Kenneth McKellar

0 Robert Levine

Most orchestra musicians, in addition to loving the repertoire they play (or most of it, at least), like other music as well - although just what they like varies greatly from person to person.

My secret vice is Scottish folk music. So I was saddened to hear that the great Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar died a few days ago:

His Handel’s Messiah with Joan Sutherland became one of Decca’s best-sellers, and his Decca recording of Handel Songs and Arias prompted Sir Adrian Boult, who had conducted the sessions, to describe McKellar as “the best Handel singer of the 20th century.”

That McKellar never became a big name on the operatic or concert circuit was principally because he lacked the ambition. For most of his life he was content singing and broadcasting in his native Scotland, where he was best known for his renditions of popular and traditional Scottish songs.

…When Alex Gibson asked him to join his new Scottish Opera he refused, although in 1965 he was persuaded by Benjamin Britten to sing the part of McHeath in a production of The Beggar’s Opera with the English Opera group at the Aldeburgh Festival and in Paris.

McKellar’s interest in the Scottish folk tradition had been stimulated during his time with the Forestry Commission by his friendship with an elderly landlady with whom he had lodged at Portree. “She had the most marvellous store of folk tales and a great grasp of Scottish history,” he recalled. “‘Aah,’ she’d say wistfully, William Wallace! I was awful vexed to hear what they did to him in London.'” He began to attend Gaelic classes at night and learned the songs of the Hebrides.

McKellar was, in fact, one of the very first classical cross-over artists, although he crossed over so thoroughly that he tended to be looked down upon as rather twee for most of his career. This was unfortunate, as he really was a great singer; reminiscent, in fact, of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in making song sound like extended speech.

In addition to recording much of the popular Scottish song repertoire (and adding at least one song to it as well), he wrote several sketches for Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

This version of the ancient Scottish lament Flowers of the Forest will give you some idea of what he sounded like in his prime, as well as of the kind of artistry that can be brought to bear on folk music by a great artist.

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