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Celtic Harmonies
Phil CUNNINGHAM The Sea Kingdoms
Alan STIVELL Airde Cuan; Marv Pontkalleg; Eliz Iza; Suite Irlandaise
SECRET GARDEN/Rolf LOVLAND Elegie; Hymn to Hope
Brian DULLAGHAN Little Fairy
THE CORRS The Minstrel Boy
Granville BANTOCK Celtic Symphony for string orchestra and six harps
Alan Stivell (celtic harp) for all Stivell tracks
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley (Symphony)
rec. 1970-2003
UNIVERSAL 039 607-2 [66.22]

This CD is a spin-off from the TV series The Sea Kingdoms the score for which takes up the first seven tracks. Phil Cunningham wrote and performed the score which in total plays for 19.16. The playing time is fleshed out with four tracks by the Breton, Alan Stivell. These date from the early 1970s long before the renaissance in interest in all things Celtic. Sean Davey's Brendan Voyages, River Dance, Capercaillie (the most natural and original voices in the Gaelic resurgence), The Chieftains, Howard Shore's and Enya's scores for The Lord of the Rings, Runrig, Rob Roy, Brave Heart and The Corrs all fan the flame and live off the fascination.

Phil Cunningham's breathy amalgam of whale calls (well used previously by Alan Hovhaness in his piece And God Created Great Whales), spotlit flute, 'harp pattering' and wisps of breathy ceremonial singing works very well. Religious Bell (tr.2) mixes the bardic singing of Carolan within a note pattern that links with Nyman's score for The Piano. War (tr.3) is akin to the sounds from early Capercaillie albums with a touch of that classic of the genre, Sean Davey's Granuaile (with the incomparable voice of Rita Connolly) - an album that should be in everyone's collection. The softly breath-warbled and invocational piping of Early Religion (end of tr. 4) makes a haunted and haunting sound - the essence of rain, soft days, ruined fastnesses, moss and peat fires. Druids - The Castle - Vikings (tr.5) is the oddest track serving its illustrative purpose well. The Language of the Celts (tr. 6) muses in calm reflection. Nostalgia (tr. 7) takes us back to the breathy flute-articulated homesickness. The four Stivell brevities lead us through grief, beauty, fabled lands, innocence and dusty glories relived or imagined. These tracks are either celtic harp alone or accompanied or preluded by flute (Airde Cuan), sampled voices (Eliz Iza - the most synthetic sounded of the four tracks) or the bodhran in Suite Irlandaise.

The Secret Garden/Rolf Lovland tracks (10, 14) have, amongst much else, Fionnuala Sherry's violin and Davey Spillane's Uillean pipes. Elegie involves a large number of players with Anúna, the Irish National Symphony Orchestra and the RTE Concert Players in a gentle populist confection. The Hymn to Hope is less commercial - for the most part attaining simplicity around a tune that drifts between Moon River on one side and Bring in the Clowns on the other.

The Minstrel Boy is a suave instrumental 1996 Corrs track which becomes more synthetic and steeped in caramel and Guinness as the track plays on. Brian Dullaghan's Little Fairy must have been a lusty, dewy-eyed creature to conjure music of this brightness - much more attractive.

The Bantock piece represents a major stylistic gear-change. This is a 'classical' piece in which the harps, though numerous, are used in a tactful concert hall balance. In the process of recording everything is contrived. Here however the effect is natural without obvious spotlighting of the harps. They get their big moment though in the Largamente maestoso with their rolling bullish arpeggios. These have nothing to do with the Gaelic harp and more to do with the cinema as in Bernard Herrmann's lushly optimistic music for the film Beyond the Twelve Mile Reef. By the way Bantock wrote quite a few other Celtic themed works including Sea Wanderers, Hebridean Symphony and the Sea Reivers. Having heard the Celtic Symphony do have a look at other Bantock orchestral discs in the Hyperion catalogue … though none prescribe six harps.

This is an album relying on the expected popularity of a TV series (surely to be syndicated worldwide?) but it stands well on its own attractive merits. Outstanding are the Phil Cunningham, Stivell and Dullaghan tracks.

There are no notes though very full artist and track listings.

Rob Barnett

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