Notes and Editorial Reviews
KENNETH MCKELLAR SINGS HANDEL
Kenneth McKellar (ten); Adrian Boult, cond; London SO & Ch; Royal Op House, Covent Garden O
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 4915, mono (73:17)
Recitatives and arias from
Serse, Acis and Galatea, Tolomeo, Jephtha, Semele, Judas Maccabaeus, Messiah
Kenneth McKellar (1927–2010) began his career not as a singer, but working for the Scottish Forestry Commission. After a few years, however, he sought and won a scholarship to the Royal
College of Music. McKellar was immediately taken on as a soloist upon graduation, by the Carl Rosa Opera Company (at a salary of 15 pounds a week; it allowed him to marry and buy a car), but soon discovered that he didn’t like the job. He subsequently found his niche performing on radio and television, in a mix of Scottish folk ballads, popular music, and the like. The Scottish tenor recorded voluminously, nearly 50 LP albums.
McKellar has gotten short shrift from a number of classical reviewers over the years. Some of it was simple snobbery, as he was an eclectic artist who enjoyed and performed a great deal of lighter fare. Then there were the years he spent in lace and tartan on the BBC’s
The White Heather Club
, a Scottish music and dance program that can be likened in certain respects to our own
Lawrence Welk Show
, with all that implies. All of which is unfortunate, as McKellar was a sensitive performer with a fine voice, and a good grasp on Handelian style.
For starters, take his version of “Comfort Ye, My People.” (It’s one of seven cuts devoted to
here, and the only one on the album not taken from the complete recording he made in 1961.) Even upon a cursory listening it’s clear McKellar wasn’t one of those singers who use words and music to convey a dramatic meaning. But although his art would have gained greatly from a more expressive “face,” there’s no denying the innate musicality of his phrasing, the caress of the line, the gentle swelling and diminishing on E below high C when he repeats the first few words without orchestral accompaniment.
Or consider “Silent Worship” from
. Here the theatrical element lies so completely within the words and music that it requires no emphasis from the singer, no dramatic shading of the line. With that out of our way, we’re left to enjoy his impeccable enunciation, the vocal emission without flaw, and that sweet voice with its honeyed upper register.
Or again, there’s “Deeper and Deeper Still” from
, the accompanied recitative that leads (with two numbers excised) to “Waft Her, Angels.” This is one of the rare occasions on the disc where McKellar does color his consonants dramatically, and to strong effect, while the whole recitative shows a masterly sense of internal build that a “mere popular singer” could hardly be expected to achieve. He doesn’t have the sheer metal for the likes of “And pours into my breast a thousand pangs / That lash me into madness,” but there’s a convincing strength and solidity—while “Horrid Thought” is vividly imaginative.
All this vanishes unfortunately as soon as “Waft Her, Angels, Through the Sky” begins, leading me to suspect that McKellar was one of many artists, then and now, who feels drama only properly belongs to recitative, while arias are devoid of such concerns. It is hardly an attitude of his alone, though, as there are many artists (fortunately, less so now than in the past) who feel this way about Baroque performance. The angular start of “Waft Her” also finds him less secure, with a hint of broadening vibrato and strain. There’s minor evidence as well in a few other selections on this disc of a not completely happy division between the lower and upper reaches of McKellar’s voice. But the problems vanish as soon as he gets past such passages. Would he have possessed the agility necessary to manage figurations in the faster Handel arias? Doubtful, but at the very least, McKellar’s figurations in “Sound an Alarm” are precise and fluid, the top notes without blame. I miss the personalizing element that Walter Widdop’s 1929 recording brings to such lines as “To the fields, again,” and the firmly etched “justice with courage,” but this remains a notable assumption for all that.
Boult is marvelously supportive, and it’s difficult to imagine better support from modern orchestras than either the London Symphony Orchestra or the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, provides. In short, though very much of his time in some respects, McKellar requires no apologies for his art and musical intelligence.
FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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