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In contrast to the boozy bacchanal that sprawls across the U.S. on March 17, the home turf celebrates St. Patrick’s Day as a solemn religious feast. This emphasis on spiritual reflection is appropriate to an island nation some deride as priest-ridden and others hail as the redoubt where Christianity, if not European civilization itself, survived the Dark Ages—no minor achievement for a people perennially subjugated, whether by other nations or their own sometimes crabbed and limiting character.
Ireland’s complexity is ever greater than anyone wants it to be—a condition that extends to the native music. Yes, there is Bono’s anthemic bray and Dolores O’Riordan’s octave-skipping yodel. Yes, there is the Chieftains’ gleeful keen and the tweedle and thump wreaked by a million seisun hacks. But Irish music encompasses far more, as evidenced by a quartet of recent releases by the Celtic Heartbeat label.
On Anúna, the dozen members of the choral group by the same name perform religious and secular music, some of it as old as any extant composition. Several songs can only be labeled “traditional”—beyond that intentional vagueness, their origins are lost. One piece dates to the 10th century, another to the 12th. Interspersed among them are arrangements by group founder Michael McGlynn, who is happy to cross the Irish Sea to Scotland for some of his choices.
Anúna‘s sound will fall with familiarity on ears lately grown accustomed to Gregorian chant (in his liner notes, McGlynn credits German composer Hildegard von Bingen—she of the ethereal 12th-century music now on the best-seller charts—for inspiring his “Sanctus”). However, both material and delivery differ from that style; Anúna incorporates percussion and folkish instruments like guitar and whistle, as well as the Celtic harp, and an occasional touch of discordance serves to keep the ensemble from getting lost in the welter of easy-listening midnight mass offerings that clog the stores.
Emigrés may be Ireland’s leading export, but legends are the country’s leading product. On her unfortunately peristaltic-sounding The Voyage of Bran, violinist and composer Máire Breatnach retells an eighth-century epic poem about a time-defying voyager who quits Ireland to search for a western land he has seen in a dream.
Such vision-driven quests recur across Irish mythology; Breatnach’s story is echoed in the tale of Tir na Nog, the Land of the Young, that formed the basis of the 1993 film Into the West. Bran’s song-cycle approach recalls the 1973 LP The Tain, on which seminal Irish rockers Horslips electrified another Celtic myth, Taín Bó Cuailnge. Breatnach, however, is no rocker. Her arrangements swing merrily when swinging is appropriate, but they stomp only rarely; she writes in a vein that might be described as bridging traditional Irish folk music and the pop, sometimes country-tinged, sometimes redolent of the big-band sound, that is a staple of homeland dance bands. Extrapolating from her own fiddling, Breatnach’s compositions convey a rich texture of history and emotion available even to the nonscholar. Her accompanists’ occasional use of foreign instruments like the gob, djimbe, and talking drum lends Bran an additional worldbeat accessibility without seeming to pander. However, at times the disc seems caught in a web of not-quite-meshing musical gears.
Patrick Cassidy’s The Children of Lir retells another myth from the pre-Christian Celtic canon, this time in symphonic form. The plot is one of sorcery and spell-breaking, with appearances by a wicked stepmother, a kingly father adrift in heartbreak, innocent children lost to and then regained by supernatural transformation—in sum, the stuff of classic fairy tales, and so deserving of classical treatment.
Lir, which ends with happy renewal at the dawn of Christian Ireland, is rendered by Cassidy as a somber spectacle, his arrangements enhanced by conductor Philip Simms’ stately direction of the London Symphony Orchestra and Tallis Chamber Choir. Save for Cassidy’s own contributions on Irish harp and an occasional bit of Uillean pipe filigree by Liam O’Flynn, the instrumentation is wholly formal. By casting his compositions at some distance from their folkloric roots, Cassidy propels them safely beyond the dangerous middle ground of genre mixing that sometimes entraps Breatnach’s material. But the composer does not overplay his hand; The Children of Lir is celebratory yet muted, guilty neither of grandiosity nor forelock tugging.
Blue Shamrock, the first solo outing by founding De Dannan member Alec Finn, is an example not of genre-mixing but instrumental miscegenation. In performing 10 traditional Irish airs, Finn layers his guitar with the Greek six-string bouzouki—and you thought the Pogues were the only lads to hear the nexus between the musics of Mount Olympus and the Mountains of Mourne!
Unfortunately, the meld, while pleasing, does not achieve the synergy it promises. Finn’s charts for classic ballads like “Down by the Sally Gardens” and “The Water Is Wide” move easily in the ear, but their contemplative nature lays too tight a rein on the propulsive bouzouki. Even though he and his accompanists are performing songs intended for a measured pace, they seem to be chafing to rip loose from convention and send the guitar and bouzouki chasing one another unleashed across hill and dale.