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Bill WHELAN (b.1950)
Linen and Lace [22.54]
Inishlacken [17.26]
Riverdance: A Symphonic Suite [38.11]
Helena Wood (violin)
Zoe Conway (fiddle)
James Galway (flute)
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/David Brophy
rec. 2016/17, National Concert Hall, Dublin 23-24 January 2016, 11-12 September 2017.
RTÉ LYRIC FM CD155 [78.31]

For many, the appeal of this CD will be the opportunity to hear the Orchestral Suite extracted from the best-selling show, Riverdance. Instrumentation has been amended to the instruments of a normal symphony orchestra, in many ways to the advantage of its musical values. Bill Whelan is a composer of high accomplishment, with a sensitive ear for orchestration. The work opens with the gentle and eloquent ‘Cloudsong before moving to more traditional Irish dance forms in ‘Reel Around the Sun’. What is striking about the work as a whole is the variety of mood, not simply between movements but also within them. The piece holds the attention from the outset, and the performance is marked by rhythmic intensity contrasted with poetry. In ‘Caineadh Cú Chulainn’, a slow lament, one can hear the melancholy of so much native Irish music. The tune lingers in the memory. I have never seen the stage show, and have no particular wish to do so, but this work stands on its own merits.

The CD justifies its existence for the Riverdance Suite alone, but there is so much pleasure to be had from the other works on the CD. Linen and Lace is a concerto for flute inspired by the respective birthplaces of the composer and dedicatee – Whelan’s Limerick and Galway’s Belfast, the latter associated with Linen, the theme of the first movement, and Limerick with lace. The brief third movement, ‘Two Cities’ acts as a unifying coda, blending themes from the first two movements. The themes are a mixture of traditional melodies and evocative sounds – in the ‘Belfast’ movement, as in the suite, there is some lovely writing for the harp. Again, there are beautiful and moving contrasts. James Galway – as we would expect - plays beautifully, but I was no less impressed by some of the solo playing in the RTÉ orchestra.

Perhaps the most enjoyable piece, again a three-movement concerto, this time for classical violin and traditional fiddle, is Inishlacken. The blend of sound offered works very well, and the contrasts between the energy of ‘The Curragh’ – the opening movement - the central almost scherzo style second movement and the elegiac final ‘Evening Céilí’ are striking and very moving.

RTÉ lyric fm are to be congratulated on yet another fine addition to their catalogue of Irish music. If these issues encourage greater knowledge of 20th Century Irish classical music outside Ireland, that will be terrific. Composers such as Seán Ó Riada (try RTÉ Lyric FM CD136) and John Kinsella are significant figures.

Michael Wilkinson


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