Kenneth McKellar 1927 – 2010
by Sarah Nelson
The blurb on the CD of Kenneth McKellar’s memorable recordings with George McPhee and the choir of Paisley Abbey talks of hymns and sacred songs by "that most beloved of tenors": not, however, in his own country.
There are two very different collective memories of what Kenneth McKellar was. For most Scots under 65 who had heard of him, he was that kilted figure who sang on TV at Hogmanay, casually bracketed with Andy Stewart, the Alexander Brothers and the White Heather Club as purveyors of a slightly embarrassing, outdated type of Scots music: and who sang My Love is Like a Red Red Rose, admittedly pretty well but a bit operatically. Of his classical output, most modern Scots know almost nothing. And in his own country, because of the Brigadoon image - plus a brief foray into the Eurovision Song Contest, which has brought its curse upon so many singers - his name is now more likely to evoke a sneer than admiration.
In strong contrast, to most Scots over 65, to numerous expatriates living abroad, and to many classical musicians, singers and classical music critics, he was the finest singer of Scots music of his era, a major international star of recording, concerts and broadcasting and our finest classical singer, still billed today on classical radio stations as "the great Scottish tenor." He was of such quality that famed conductor Sir Adrian Boult called him the greatest Handel singer of the 20th century. His Messiah recording with Joan Sutherland remains one of Decca’s all-time biggest sellers. American critic Richard Munro described McKellar as "one of the great tenors that 20th century Britain has produced", who as an interpreter of Burns’ songs and the lowland Scots tradition, was without peer.
Over several decades from the early 1950s McKellar, whose contemporaries at the Royal College of Music included Sutherland and Sir Alexander Gibson, recorded in Italian, German, French, Latin and Welsh as well as English. Digital remastering on CD –and a recently issued DVD of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, singing with Janet Baker and Heather Harper- have brought much of his output within reach of a wide modern audience again.
McKellar combined great mastery of technique and beauty of sound with an unusual feeling and sensitivity for everything he sang. Technical mastery was put at the service of that feeling, not the other way round. Although his Handel recordings, and works like Godard’s Angels Guard Thee, are still regularly played on classical radio stations and feature on popular classical compilations, his other classical work is frustratingly hard to find at the moment. Rejecting a full time opera career after only two years, much of his output it seems came in concerts in Scotland and abroad, or in recordings which are still buried in vaults of the BBC and elsewhere.
His albums of popular classics for instance remain on vinyl only (in 2009)
Yet exquisite recordings on The Decca Years such as Massenet’s Dream Song from Mamon, and moving versions of works people have grown weary of after so many pale wispy imitations – such as his Ave Maria and Panis Angelicus on Songs of John McCormack, the latter an outpouring of passionate sound- suggest other popular recordings like Die Forelle or Santa Lucia would sell very well today.
McKellar was also very versatile. He could sing emotional Scots or Irish ballads yet rattle off light unpretentious ditties like Roamin’ in the Gloamin’. With a dry wit and comedy timing which saw him writing The Midges and successful scripts for the Monty Python team, he even convincingly imitated the Queen on The Pan Drap.
He performed with powerful impact unaccompanied with She Moves Through the Fair or on Floo’ers of the Forest to spare drumbeats. He adopted the old-fashioned lyric tenor style of McCormack and a past era on songs like Hame O’ Mine, I’ll Walk Beside You or I Hear You Calling Me. His religious work ranged from great power to quiet sensitivity as on the brief, incomparable God be In My Head. His show tunes and musicals contrast with a stunning interpretation of Britten’s Down by the Salley Gardens which suggests he could have been an equally successful counter-tenor.
It is now greatly to be hoped that at last, younger generations of Scots will listen to his work without prejudice; that his admirers will ensure all his best work is remastered and featured once more in record stores; and that his reputation can finally be re established as one of Scotland’s greatest ever singers, and unquestionably its finest tenor.