Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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ROBERT LAMB The Children of Lir . Fiona Shaw - narrator National SO of Ireland/composer Naxos 8.554407 [73:23]



All credit to Naxos for recording at bargain price a new work and one which is tuneful, with some lasting fibre and instantly accessible.

Robert Lamb’s music is not desperately original in its style and accents. The language has elements of Walton, Tippett and perhaps Peter Maxwell Davies. To my shame I had never heard of Lamb before this recording was issued. He was born in Cork in 1931 and is a well-known trombonist in Eire and in the UK, especially in the jazz world. By the way there are no obvious jazz influences in the Lamb work.

The whole genre of melodrama I find extremely attractive. There is something potent about clearly spoken words over a rich orchestral canvas. I am a great admirer of Bliss’s Morning Heroes, RVW’s Oxford Elegy, Fibich’s Hippodamia trilogy, Copland’s Lincoln Portrait and a number of other works of this type.

This is not the first time the tragic Lir legend has attracted composers. Hamilton Harty’s 1940 tone poem with vocalising soprano (Heather Harper) exists for everyone to discover on Chandos - a bejewelled work which suffers only by comparison with its coupling, the ineffable Harty setting of Ode to a Nightingale. More recently the David Cassidy setting complete with a male narrator, full orchestra and gigantic chorus was broadcast on TV. This used a strange mix of massive Handelian-style choruses given a suitable Eireannachd edge by the now ubiquitous uillean pipes (trendy since River Dance and the markedly superior Granuaile!). This too is very effective but so different from the much more impressionist twentieth century score of Robert Lamb.

The story recounts how King Lir has four children (three boys and a girl) by Eva. When Eva dies Lir is persuaded by his father in law to marry Eve’s sister Eva. Eva uses her great beauty and sensuality to win the King’s heart. For a while they are contentedly happy. Then jealousy enters Eva’s heart. She sees the three children as an obstacle between herself and Lir and using her magic powers turns them into swans for 900 years. Lir is revenged on Eva. After many trials the swan children are transformed back to humanity as Christianity comes to Ireland but, now 900 years old, they are hideously withered and quickly die after they are baptised.

The score is touching and almost filmic in its vivid portrayal of incident and emotion. The great swelling melody which accompanies Eva’s sensual dance rises ecstatically to a great climax and Lir is then completely enthralled by Eva. A great part of the magic of this large-scale score is down to Fiona Shaw’s impassioned performance. Often quiet, she has great reserves of communicable emotion and these are used to grand histrionic effect. Not for Ms Shaw great howling and shouting; her whispers can be just as devastating. She gives a very fine performance. I rather hope that she was with the orchestra when the recording was made rather than dubbing her voice onto a pre-recorded track. Whatever the process the end-result is extremely affecting. Not earth-shattering music-making but certainly a work with a high mountain range of emotion. A satisfying companion for a long car journey.


Robert Barnett

HELP! Years ago I recall seeing an LP of someone’s setting of the Lir Legend. It was some time in the 1960s. Does anyone remember the LP or can anyone tell me who the composer was. I always wished I had bought that secondhand LP just for curiosity. This was definitely not the Harty work.


Robert Barnett

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