Interweaving Lines

Camerata Kilkenny and uilleann piper David Power

Interweaving Lines

What is the common heritage between traditional Irish tunes and Baroque dances? Adrian Scahill reviews a new recording on the RTÉ Lyric FM label.

This CD is a welcome addition to the canon of recordings and performances that have explored the interface between Irish traditional music and the music of the Baroque period. Delving back into the territory that was perhaps first quarried by Seán Ó Riada and Ceoltóirí Chualann on Ceol na nUasal, Camerata Kilkenny and David Power present a diverse programme which falls into three loose categories: music by Turlough Carolan and other traditional tunes arranged for pipes and ensemble; solo music for uilleann pipes; and works from the long Baroque period. Uilleann piper David Power is no stranger to the art of collaboration, having performed regularly with harpsichordist and organist Malcolm Proud, one of the members of Camerata Kilkenny, a long-established Baroque ensemble founded by Proud and violinist Maya Homburger.

The ‘newest’ pieces on the CD are the arrangements for pipes and ensemble. As with every performance of Carolan’s work, a certain amount of reworking or arranging is necessary due to the nature of how his music has come down to us – this was often in arrangements for keyboard instruments or as a simple melody. While Carolan composed his music for the wire-strung harp, the links between the traditional and the Baroque outlined in the notes solely focus on the harp and the fiddle, and strangely ignore the uilleann pipes, although we know from collections like O’Farrell’s Pocket Companion for the Irish or Union Pipes (1802) that Carolan’s music had already found its way into the piping repertoire at the end of the eighteenth century. The two pieces here, ‘Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór’ and ‘Carolan’s Concerto’, are arranged by Marja Gaynor and Malcolm Proud, and in their current form thus symbolise one of the narratives of the Baroque (and indeed the early classical) period in Ireland, which is that the pipes had essentially replaced the harp as the main instrument of artisan/professional musicians by the end of the nineteenth century.

Music of the nobles
‘Carolan’s Concerto’ is stately and dignified here, played on C-sharp pipes in a restrained reading by Power (especially compared to the extravagance of Paddy Moloney’s interpretation on
Chieftains 3). Gaynor’s arrangement brings plenty of colour to the piece, with supple contrapuntal violin lines wheeling around Power’s melody, and pizzicato strings underneath the pipes on the initial repeat. It is an elegant performance, but I found that occasionally the descant violin lines were a little too overbearing. ‘Sí Bheag Sí Mór’ is also played in a solemn and almost regal manner, building up slowly from solo pipes to full ensemble, where the Baroque violins of Camerata Kilkenny adorn the melody with delicate trill-laden figurations. These are performances worthy of the epithet ‘Ceol na nUasal’ (music of the nobles), which Ó Riada used as a title for his 1968 album of harp and vocal music from the same period. The other tune arranged for pipes and ensemble, ‘The Downfall of Paris’, is a more unusual choice for this treatment, but works extremely well in its sympathetic mimesis of the pipes’ drones and unobtrusive harmonies.

Power’s solo work is exceptional throughout the CD, especially in the airs ‘An Droighneán Donn’ and Samuel Lover’s ‘An Leanbh Sidhe’. In the second air (which in truth is far from the Baroque period) he gives full vent to the pipe’s expressive qualities with some theatrical ‘sliding’ techniques. All of the piper’s armoury is on show in ‘The Fox Chase’, a programmatic piece reputed to be from the end of the eighteenth century. Power also appears on a number of the classical pieces, most to the fore in the Pifa from Messiah, where the imitations of the bagpipe make the uilleann pipes an entirely suitable addition to the texture. There is also an adaption of a similar pastoral interlude in the reworking of two French dances for musette (a French bellows-blown bagpipe of the period) and ensemble from a Jean-Marie Leclair opera, the combination of pipes and string drones here reminiscent at times of a hurdy-gurdy.

The musette also features in the first of the two suites by Telemann featured here, although only in name and as inspiration for some of the folk-inspired dances. There is some tremendously vigorous and energetic playing here, from the torrents of notes packed into the Harlequinade, to the rumbustious rhythms of the Mourky. The Gulliver Suite by Telemann for two violins is a programmatic piece of sorts, with its movements depicting the various inhabitants of the lands visited in the novel. Thus the delicate Chaconne of the Lilliputians is small in scale and written in the most unusual 3/32 time signature, whereas the Brobdingnagian gigue is heavy and ponderous. 

Travelling tunes
The only question over these pieces is whether they made their way over to Ireland in this period, and whether they had any impact at all on the traditional music of the time. A quick consultation of Brian Boydell’s Dublin Musical Calendar reveals only a brief, tantalising reference to Telemann’s music being imported and sold by William Manwaring in the 1750s.

From an earlier stage of the Baroque, and more likely to have been heard in Ireland, Henry Purcell’s Suite from The Fairy Queen, which also appears on the recording, groups together the music composed for the masques that formed part of this adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

It’s difficult to fault any aspect of the excellent playing here, or indeed throughout the CD as a whole, which displays consummate musicianship and inspired and always engaging performances. My only reservation is that this doesn’t fully explore the common heritage of these traditions, but merely sets them side by side: the piper and the fairy queen for the most part remain in their separate domains.

Camerata Kilkenny: The Piper and the Fairy Queen: Exploring the common heritage of traditional Irish tunes and Baroque dances (RTÉ CD156) is available on the RTÉ Lyric FM label.

Published on 28 June 2018

Adrian Scahill is a lecturer in traditional music at Maynooth University.

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