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Celtic Airs - Piano arrangements by Barry Douglas
Barry Douglas (piano)
Eimear McGeown (Irish flute - whistle); Catriona McKay (Scottish harp); Chris Stout (Shetland fiddle)
rec. 5-6 February 2016, Curtis Auditorium and Recording Suite, CIT Cork School of Music, Bishopstown, Cork, Ireland
CHANDOS CHAN10934 [72:26]

Barry Douglas plays to his Irish roots here in a series of predominantly calming arrangements for his piano and for instrumentalists drawn from the green aristocracy of the Celtic folk movement. Douglas plays on each track and in most cases with Eimear McGeown who plays flute and whistle. I can easily imagine this album as the product of one of Karen Matheson's and Donald Shaw's 'Highland Sessions' - no tartan and no leprechauns; just emotion and integrity.

A warm and intimately ambient sound instantly announces itself with the medley Ballyvaughan Pier/The RuneScape Jig/Secret Circle Reel by flautist Eimear McGeown. The first segment, with its slippery-sliding 'notes', is typically atmospheric and touching. McGeown also plays in Brendan's Air, a fog-damp of Irish melancholia by Brendan Monaghan. The Foggy Dew is well known and has been used by many a composer. It's a very useable traditional melody which rings out in dignity - sturdy heroism even. It is heard here for piano alone. Fear a' Bhata, a Gaelic melody, sings out with placid clarity and measured pace. McGeown again sets her seal on the music's nostalgia. The Fields of Athenry takes the form of a delicate little slow dance by Pete St John. Planxty Irwin by Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738), the blind harpist, again infers a world rainy with sorrow. The Minstrel Boy with its slow-dripping, mesmerising sadness and unashamed sentimentality springs from traditional Irish sources as does Róisín Dubh which means "Black-haired Rose". This starts with Eimear McGeown, poignant and searching as ever. Then Douglas makes his entrance in a way that suggests the inward cleansing surge of the tide.

Molly Malone is well enough known but is here presented in an unhackneyed way and in freshly-cut diamond sentiment. I had not heard Buachaill ón Éirne (A boy from Erne-side) before. It is quarried from an emerald lode with the merest hint of a tear as is On Raglan Road. The Star of the County Down starts gently but rises to majestic skies before curving down. Its contours will be better known in some quarters as the hymn I heard the voice of Jesus and in others as the basis for RVW's Variants on 'Dives and Lazarus'. The Lark in the Clear Air is innocent and uncomplicated.

Most telling is Mná na hÉireann (The Women of Ireland) for all the instrumentalists. This gift of a tune is by Seán Ó Riada (1931-1971). We need more of this composer's music to add to the RTÉ Lyric FM CD issued some years back. You may well have heard Mná na hÉireann in other formats including an especially guileless treatment by The Chieftains (through which I discovered it), in the music for Stanley Kubrick's 1975 feature film "Barry Lyndon" and most tangily in the priceless Gael-Linn 3 CD set "Seán Ó Riada - The Essential Collection".

Barry's Reels for piano, harp and fiddle comprises Tune for Barry, a melody composed by Catriona McKay and Sair Fecht written by Chris Stout. It provides a necessary contrast to all this submissive melancholy. It rattles and chimes with rapid glint and rhythmic thump; sort of reminiscent of Michael Nyman but with more of a lapidary gleam. Its sheer propulsive excitement reminded me of Nyman's Where the Bee Dances. Glorious.

The Unst Bridal March 'mixes it' with piano, harp and fiddle. It returns us to the album's gently pensive True North for a moment. Then we are played out the door by Óró 'sé do bheatha abhaile (You are welcome home) where all four musicians pitch in with intimations of low rain-clouds and thunder.

The audio-technical side is elite, very pleasing - probably more up-close and personal than one of Chandos's pure classical albums. Celtic albums can be perilous enterprises often tipping over into a wreck of gloop and sentimentality. Chandos, Douglas and his ally musicians avoid all that being a very superior class act. You never doubt it from start to finish so the results more than trounce the usual traps.

If you enjoy this album - as well you might - then don't forget that Douglas has done some thing similar before with Chandos in Celtic Reflections (review review).

Rob Barnett

1. Ballyvaughan Pier/The RuneScape Jig/Secret Circle Reel 6:03
Melody composed by Eimear McGeown
Eimear McGeown: Irish flute - whistle

2. Brendan's Air 4:36
Melody composed by Brendan Monaghan
Eimear McGeown: Irish flute - whistle

3. The Foggy Dew 3:10
Traditional Irish melody

4. Fear a' Bhata 3:24
(The Boatman) Traditional Irish/Scottish melody
Eimear McGeown: Irish flute - whistle

5. The Fields of Athenry 4:08
Melody composed by Pete St John

6. Planxty Irwin 2:26
Melody composed by Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738). Eimear McGeown: Irish flute - whistle

7. The Minstrel Boy 5:52
Traditional Irish melody

8. Róisín Dubh 4:07
(Black-haired Rose) Traditional Irish melody Eimear McGeown: Irish flute - whistle

9. Molly Malone 3:13
Traditional Irish melody

10. Buachaill ón Éirne 3:45
(A boy from Erne-side) Traditional Irish melody Eimear McGeown: Irish flute - whistle

11. On Raglan Road 3:42
Traditional Irish melody
Eimear McGeown: Irish flute - whistle

12. The Star of the County Down 2:06
Traditional melody

13. Master McGrath 2:56
Traditional Irish melody

14. The Lark in the Clear Air 3:41
Traditional Irish melody

15. Mná na hÉireann 5:44
(The Women of Ireland) Melody composed y Seán Ó Riada (1931-1971)
Eimear McGeown: Irish flute - whistle
Catriona McKay: Scottish harp
Chris Stout: Shetland fiddle

16. Barry's Reels 4:31
'Tune for Barry', melody composed by Catriona McKay; 'Sair Fecht', melody composed by Chris Stout; Catriona McKay: Scottish harp
Chris Stout: Shetland fiddle

17. Unst Bridal March 4:31
Traditional melody from the Shetland Islands
Catriona McKay: Scottish harp
Chris Stout: Shetland fiddle

18. Óró 'sé do bheatha abhaile 3:08
(You are welcome home) Traditional Irish melody
Eimear McGeown: Irish flute - whistle
Catriona McKay: Scottish harp
Chris Stout: Shetland fiddle



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