Stuart MacRae: Earth, thy cold is keen

In 2021, Stuart MacRae heard a recorded performance by mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean of The Lif of this World, his 2008 setting of an anonymous Middle English lyric. Entranced by the way she shaped its phrases and ornamentation, he immediately began to conceive new works for her voice, solo or lightly accompanied, as well as to bring to completion several other works-in-progress.

This extraordinary flurry of activity – eight vocal works completed in less than two years – is captured here, and reveals the extent to which MacRae’s recent music has expanded to embrace folk-like simplicity alongside the modernist techniques of his earlier work. Similar qualities are found in two works for the violin-and-cello duo Sequoia, while MacRae himself appears on harmonium and contributes electronics to two of the vocal solos.

"Betts-Dean’s voice is the focus, at times ethereal, others bracingly earthy, and often featuring agile, decorative curlicues. There is great intimacy, with generally light accompaniment from violin-and-cello duo Sequoia or the composer on harmonium, alongisde extended solo passages, notably the hypnotic central unfolding of The Captive. This music is clearly modern, yet permeated by a folk sensibility and medievalism that imbue it with a timeless quality ... Sequoia’s grounded playing comes judiciously to the fore for two short pieces, the ebb and Haroldswick. ‘Stond wel, Moder, under rode’ is a remarkable alternate Stabat Mater, the medieval text being a dialogue between the dying Jesus on the cross and his mother, Mary, MacRae’s setting being all the more powerful for its intense restraint. The remarkable ‘wodwo’ is at the album’s heart. Recorded birdsong seemingly elicits Betts-Dean’s gentle ululations in a piece of stunning, melancholic beauty"

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

"starkly beautiful ... MacRae wrote the majority of the music on this album especially for Betts-Dean (the daughter of Hamlet composer Brett) after hearing her perform his The Lif of this World a few years ago, and it's easy to see why her distinctive, plangent voice and insightful way with text proved such a wellspring of inspiration. Scottish folk influences abound, especially in the opening The Captive and the purely instrumental Haroldswick, and the overall mood is one of spare, chilly beauty. Do try it ..."


"This new release of works by Stuart MacRae is, in short, a striking collection. The use of a wide variety of texts from Rossetti, Bronte, Alwynne Pritchard, the Poetic Edda, Gaelic and Middle English demonstrates his love and skill with text.Similarly, the use of varying forces among the gathered quartet makes every work stand out and makes the album a wonderful journey.What strikes me is the comparable qualities the album has with Holst’s songs for violin, where the modal inflections make some of the works seem like ancient, rediscovered relics ...Lotte Betts-Dean’s ability to juggle the musical and linguistic differences between all the works shows her incredible knack as a performer"

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

" ... Earth, thy cold is keen by Scottish composer Stuart MacRae, conjures an aural landscape steeped in folk music and medieval lyric, but the result is entirely distinctive and modern. With the Australian mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean and the duo Sequoia (Alice Rickards, violin, Sonia Cromarty, cello), MacRae adds harmonium or electronics to settings from Middle English, the Norse Poetic Edda and traditional Gaelic, as well as later poems by Christina Rossetti and others. The Captive, a setting of Emily Brontë’s The Prisoner, written for Betts-Dean, suits perfectly the singer’s pure tone and skilful storytelling powers. In sharp contrast, Alwynne Pritchard’s text elided compressed is a playfully spiky collage of voice and electronics. The last song, The Lif of This World, a medieval precis of birth to death in a translation by MacRae, is especially affecting. This is music for slow, close listening, beautifully performed, not for the impatient"

'Captivated by the unique, surreal quality of Australian mezzo soprano Lotte Betts-Dean’s voice – a folk-like purity embellished with beguiling ornamentation – Stuart MacRae set about composing eight works for her over a recent intense two-year period. The results are enchanting, characterfully revealed in the album Earth, Thy Cold Is Keen ... There’s gripping unpredictability in a journey that courses through the mystical, largely unaccompanied simplicity of The Captive(words Emily Bronté), the frenetic electronics of Elided Compressed, a traditional Gaelic song playfully remodelled, and much more en route to the crushing density of O Earth, Lie Heavily and the earlier-composed The Lif of this World. The title track is an ethereal combination of voice and harmonium. Sequoia go it alone in two individually seasoned instrumental numbers'

"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 ...  Earth, thy cold is keen demonstrates MacRae’s versatility as a composer, encompassing both pieces of folkloric simplicity alongside complex contemporary techniques ... 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"

read the full review here

Release Date: 28 July 2023
Catalogue No: DCD34297
Total playing time: 1:17:00

Recorded on 8-10 November 2022 at St Cuthbert’s Parish Church, Edinburgh
Producer/Engineer: Paul Baxter
24-bit digital editing: Jack Davis
24-bit digital mastering: Paul Baxter

Cover image: Blake Weyland / Unsplash Design: Drew Padrutt
Booklet editor: John Fallas
Session photography: foxbrushfilms.com
Delphian Records Ltd – Edinburgh – UK


★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Singing In Secret: Clandestine Catholic Music by William Byrd CD Delphian Records


The Captive.Epilogue


An atmospheric film of MacRae's 'The Captive' filmed during recording sessions

Album Booklet

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