|The Gentleman Pipers
|Globestyle CDORB 084
|Classics of Irish Piping
|Padraig O'Keefe, Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford
|The Sliabh Luachra Fiddle Master
|RTÉ CD 174
In a review in the last Musical Traditions, Derek Schofield recalled, not without some nostalgia, Topic's traditional music glory days in the 1970s, and here are some discs that immediately evoke that period for me. Globestyle's repackaging of music from the Topic catalogue in bite-size pieces is probably a more commercial exercise than reissuing many of the LPs wholesale would be, and there is no denying that this selection of Irish piping makes extremely good listening.
It starts with tracks from Topic's own reissue programme, bringing back great recordings of the 1920s and '30s by Liam Walsh, William Andrews and Leo Rowsome. Walsh's Banks of the Suir is a fine air, played beautifully, but although in his booklet notes, Ron Cavana draws attention to the same piper's rendition of The Portland Reel, I'm not quite convinced. It is certainly a breathtaking performance, fast, flamboyant and exciting, but I wonder what it would be like to try to dance to it. It doesn't seem to me to have the crisp, feet-lifting rhythm of, say, Felix Doran's Lark in the Morning later in the selection.
From the reissues, we move on to Willie Clancy, recorded in the 1960s. These tracks are flawless, illustrating perfectly Clancy's mastery of the instrument, mixing control with individual genius and superlative ability - probably the best music in the entire collection. It is worth noting, also, how sparing he is with the regulators (the secondary drones), but when he brings them in, he really makes them count.
Seamus Ennis's tracks come from 1974, and find him too in exceptional form - his subtle little decorations on The Boys of Bluehill are a delight. Sean McAloon is the only representative from the North, and is one of the few (if not quite the only) piper ever to record with a dulcimer player (John Rea). I think the two instruments work together remarkably well, but even on his own, McAloon can generate remarkable power and drive.
Felix Doran has much less of the wildness of his brother Johnny, but this is very fine stuff, and as I have mentioned already he shows a real understanding of the needs of the dancer - not something that always seems foremost in the minds of pipers. Pat Mitchell was a disciple of Willie Clancy and two of his tunes here were learnt from him; having the two musicians on this disc offers a very satisfying glimpse of the piping tradition in action. Another of Mitchell's tunes, Mairseail Alasdruim, is one of my favourite tracks here - an unusual jig, that segues into an equally unusual slow air.
I have to admit that my perspective on many of these records is skewed by my own personal nostalgia - the McAloon for some reason immediately bringing back warm outdoor evenings in that very hot summer of 1976 - but I can still be objective enough to know that any lover of traditional music could not fail to be entranced by these great players and great tunes.
Topic devoted two vinyl LPs to reissuing Leo Rowsome's music, and almost all of the rest of the tracks from those are included on their own CD, Classics of Irish Piping. This collection, compiled from 78s originally issued on Rex, Columbia and HMV between 1926 and 1948, enables us to get a closer look at one man's repertoire and style, and offers an insight into the range of tunes that an Irish musician of the time would have played - as well as the jig, reel and hornpipe sets, there are airs, marches, set dances and even a set of waltzes. Rowsome was a great player, and I believe very influential - his use of the regulators in a rhythmic way survives in many later players. Having said which, I know that some lovers of Irish piping feel that this is not altogether a healthy legacy.
Two tracks were cut with an improvised accompaniment from two English musicians (a violinist and a drummer, neither of whom, we are told, had any knowledge of Irish music). They are enjoyable enough, but I would have to dissent from Sean Reid's remark in the notes that this is 'some of the most inspiring Irish dance music ever made'. Much more successful, for me, are tracks like the hornpipe set The Independent and The Star, where his notes fairly come flowing out of the instrument, or The Collier's Reel, on which Rowsome makes sure - for all the beat of his regulators - that it is the tune itself that is making the running, building up the momentum before thrillingly changing into The Sligo Maid. I have a soft spot, too, for the two patriotic Airs of '98, into which he injects great expression, and the two marches that appeared on the other side of the same original record - rousing stuff, whatever your politics.
As well as their pioneering reissue programme, one of Topic's other most important achievements in the 1970s, as far as Irish music was concerned, was their six-volume series documenting the music of Sliabh Luachra, 'the district on the Kerry / Cork borders surrounding the river Blackwater', as it is described in the booklet accompanying Kerry Fiddles, which was Volume I in the original series, and is here released unchanged on CD. This was the only one in the series which was not primarily new recordings, having been compiled from recordings in the BBC Sound Archives made by Seamus Ennis in 1952.
O'Keeffe was a travelling fiddle teacher, and his influence on the development of the distinctive style of the area seems to have been very great. He is joined here by two of his most distinguished pupils, Julia Clifford, who emigrated to London, and her brother Denis Murphy, who had gone in the other direction and lived for many years in New York. Several tracks feature them all playing as a trio, Clifford and Murphy play a number of duets, and each of them play some solos. Individually, they are each quite clearly very fine players, but it is in the combination tracks, especially the trios, that the greatest beauty is to be found. The excitement they generate on the final set of reels is simply magnificent. But another quality that I think emerges from the playing of these musicians is one of warmth; there isn't the hard edge that some fiddle players seem to bring out, nor - for me anyway - is there the wild and lonesome feeling of, say, some of the Donegal stylists. This should not be interpreted by any means as implying a failing - on the contrary, it is distinctions like these that make the music special, and these recordings stand testimony to a sadly long lost time when regional differences were the rule rather than the exception.
Ennis had previously recorded O'Keeffe for Radio Éireann in 1948 and 1949, and the results of those sessions are collected on RTÉ's CD The Sliabh Luachra Fiddle Master. Having known and loved Kerry Fiddles for about 15 years, it was a great pleasure to hear yet more music by this wonderful musician - he is solo on 14 out of 16 tracks, the other two being duets with Denis Murphy. Some tunes appear again, including both of the slow airs (along with another two), usually in different combinations, which is an interesting point in itself. This set comes with a booklet that provides more detailed biographical information than the Topic one; the latter originally had a companion booklet to the whole series, which I assume is long out of print. For anyone who doesn't have a copy of that, the notes with the RTÉ CD help make the man behind the music come more to life. I enjoyed reading especially the section headed 'His Way With Words', where we learn of the wit and wisdom of the man, which somehow rings very true with the qualities that come across in his music.
We are told also that O'Keeffe 'wasn't too fond of playing for dancers . . . He preferred 'listening' music as this gave him a chance to show the beauty and the depth of the tune.' I find this interesting because although the latter point does come across in his playing, his handling of the tunes leaves out nothing that a dancer could wish for. Listen to the way he takes a stately and careful approach to Johnny Cope, bringing out the qualities of the six parts of the tune, yet never losing the essential pulse of the dance. Quite wonderful. His love of tunes for their own sake, of course, comes across most strongly in his playing of the slow airs, and indeed one sometimes gets the feeling he is milking them for all he can get.
Finally, considering the age of the material on the last three discs reviewed here, the sound quality is excellent. But in almost any condition these recordings would be well worth having.
Ray Templeton - 18.8.98
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