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I am Wind on Sea: Contemporary Vocal Music from Ireland
Ina BOYLE (1889-1967)
Three Songs by Walter de la Mare (1956) [5:54]
Sleep Song (1923) [2:30]
Elaine AGNEW (b.1967)
April Awake (2004) [6:36]
Seóirse BODLEY (b.1933)
After Great Pain (2002) [10:02]
Remember (2011) [4:02]
The Tightrope Walker Presents a Rose, piano solo (1976) [2:48]
Anne-Marie O'FARRELL (b.1966)
Hoopoe Song (2009) [10:18]
Rhona CLARKE (b.1958)
‘smiling like that ...’ (2015) [5:07]
John BUCKLEY (b.1951)
I am Wind on Sea (1987) [9:40]
Aylish Kerrigan (mezzo-soprano)
Dearbhla Collins (piano)
rec. Sonic Arts Research Centre, Belfast, August/September 2015
MÉTIER MSV28558 [57:22]

This is a major conspectus of Irish Song, composed over a period of 93 years by a representative group of composers. I cannot promise that the listener will enjoy every song and song-cycle on this disc, for the disparity of styles and musical language is considerable. It ranges from the relatively conventional lieder by Ina Boyle by way of the ‘taped’ ‘drum and bass’ accompaniment of Rhona Clarke’s ‘smiling like that...’ to the musically and verbally fragmented ‘I am Wind on Sea’ by John Buckley.

As a bit of a reactionary in vocal music, I began with Ina Boyle’s Three Songs by Walter de la Mare composed in 1956. ‘The Song of the Mad Prince’ and ‘The Pigs and the Charcoal Burner’ are from the poet’s Peacock Pie (1913) collection, with ‘Moon, Reeds, Bushes’ taken from Bells and Grass (1941). These are delightful songs which explore a world of darkish humour, fantasy and lost love. These moods are emphasised in this fine performance.

Boyle’s other contribution is the ‘Sleep Song’ to traditional words translated by Padraig Pearse. It is the oldest piece on this CD having been composed in 1923. The temperament of the song is a perfect balance between countryside description and lullaby.

Elaine Agnew’s lovely song cycle April Awake, based on poems by Belfast-born John Hewitt, is a stunning evocation of the Glens of Antrim. It is immediately approachable. The music reflects the ‘rich variety of texture and colour’ of this landscape. The liner notes suggest that ‘you can practically smell the ‘sunlight on the whin’ and the ‘leafing hedge and willow’, and admire the colours of ‘the blossoms white of blackthorn’, ‘the gold galore’ and the ‘purple-shadowed furrow’.’ It is an imaginative combination of text and music. April Awake was commissioned by the Belfast Music Festival and was first performed in 2004.

Seóirse Bodley has written a large amount of music, including seven symphonies, much chamber music and many songs and choral pieces. Yet, he is little represented on CD. Arkiv list one work, a Piano Trio (Metier MSV28556) and MDT include a retrospective including the first two symphonies. (RTE Lyric CD121). There is a Marco Polo CD of his Symphonies No.4 and 5 (8.225157). Fortunately, he is reasonably well-represented on YouTube. Bodley has contributed a song cycle to this present CD: After Great Pain (2002). These are settings of Emily Dickinson (‘After Great Pain’, ‘Tis not that Dying’ and ‘Tie the String to my life, my Lord’) and Walt Whitman (‘I am the mashed fireman’). All concern pain and suffering. Not my favourite work on this CD, but I understand that they are important songs that do have some optimism despite their depressing subject matter. Musically they are beautifully contrived. ‘Remember’ with words by Christina Rossetti was composed in memory of the Irish mezzo-soprano Bernadette Greevy who died in 2008. The final number by Bodley is ‘The Tightrope Walker Presents a Rose’ (1976). This is a short piano piece written as a gift for his first wife, Olive. It is a concatenation of two types of music: ‘Irish traditional’ and ‘abstract’–presented in the short pace of a 2’48”. It is of considerable beauty.

I found that Anne-Marie O’Farrell’s ‘Hoopoe Song’ (2009) is just a little longwinded: it overstayed its welcome, lasting more than ten minutes. It is more a cantata than a song. The subject of the poem is the thorny problem of peace (or lack of it) in Jerusalem. The hoopoe bird is the only character who can transcend the prejudices and divisions of the three Abrahamic faiths. On the other hand, the song is chock-full of attractive musical imagery and effects including spoken sections. Despite my personal reservations, it is probably the most significant piece on this CD. The text is by Seamus Cashman. ‘Hoopoe Song’ is finely sung by Aylish Kerrigan with the inventive piano part well played by Dearbhla Collins.

I noted above Rhona Clarke’s wonderful evocation ‘smiling like that...’ It was devised for female voice and tape and was composed for the present singer. The text is taken from James Joyce’s Ulysses, the section headed ‘Penelope’ which is better known as ‘Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.’ The words set include allusions to Molly’s career as an opera singer and her affair with Boylan. The tape was made up of samples of Kerrigan’s singing which is combined with the live vocal part as well as the ‘accompaniment.’ The textures, the vocal manipulations and the combination of sung and spoken parts are pure magic. It is my favourite piece on this disc.

I did not enjoy John Buckley’s ‘I am wind on Sea’ (1987). The song is ‘accompanied’ by woodblocks and crotales which acts as an ‘extension of her [Kerrigan’s] voice. There is no piano part. I concede the resourcefulness and the diversity of the vocal techniques (think Cathy Berberian), but this has all been done before. There is a magic somewhere in these pages, but I found it difficult to pin down. It is not the style I would have used to set these gorgeous words by an ‘ancient Irish source.’

Prof. Dr. Aylish E. Kerrigan’s webpage explains, that she ‘was born in San Francisco of Irish parents and lives in Germany. Her repertoire ranges from Irish Ballads, German Lieder and Theatre Music to a wide range of contemporary compositions. She is a renowned vocal pedagogue and gives concerts, master classes and lectures world-wide.’

Dearbhla Collins ‘is one of Ireland's finest accompanists and vocal coaches. Internationally regarded for her pianistic skills, Collins is a much-loved and much respected member of the teaching faculty at the Royal Irish Academy of Music.’

The programme notes are provided by the composers (except for the late Ina Boyle, where Ita Beausang has done the honours) and reward study. Helpfully, the texts of these songs have been printed. There are brief studies of all six composers as well as the performers. The sound quality of this CD is ideal with every detail being crystal clear. Aylish Kerrigan’s distinctive voice, brings imagination, emotion and warmth to these varied songs. Dearbhla Collins’ performance is always superb.

I suggest that the listener approach these songs by group or by composer. Do not listen at a single sitting. This is an excellent release: all the songs are finely sung and splendidly accompanied. As noted above, there is surely something for everybody on this CD. Even the songs that did not immediately appeal to me, begin to work their enchantment after a couple of hearings.

John France

 




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