The CD takes its title from the best piece on the CD, which also gets the best performance. John Buckley’s volcanically inventive vocal fantasia, which places considerable demands on the vocalist (in addition to requiring her to contribute significantly as a percussionist on crotales and woodblocks), was written with the particular vocal and dramatic qualities of Aylish Kerrigan in mind. It is a pivotal work in Buckley’s output, coming as it does on the heels of such hard-edged early works as Oileain for piano (superbly recorded by Anthony Byrne on Marco Polo/Naxos), which pushes into the realm of combative modernism, and the later works, from around the time of the first (and so far only) symphony (also available on Marco Polo/Naxos) onwards, with its inventively rich textures and abundant lyrical and energetic impulses. The piece uses the contrasting colours of Dr. Kerrigan’s voice to suggest several different personas (or spirits) throughout, as each line of the text (translated by the composer) is either spoken, dissembled or dramatically propelled into the open spaces this piece seems to inhabit. Extended techniques, such as tongue clicking, flutter tonguing and the like, are used tellingly to evoke an immediate sense of ritual (to which the percussion contribute notably – one can almost smell the incense) which is at one and the same time ancient and abrasively contemporary. The work, and its performance on this CD, represents a tour de force in contemporary Irish vocal music.
There are three works included by Seoirse Bodley, and they present a broad canvas representing aspects of the composer’s stylistic orbit over a long creative career. The Tightrope Walker Presents a Rose dates from 1976 and showcases the combination of modern features with traditional Irish material typical of much of Bodley’s output from that decade. It is given a vivid performance here by Dearbhla Collins. After Great Pain, written in 2000, sets poems by Emily Dickenson and Walt Whitman, the latter providing the focal point of the cycle. The musical language here combines the more familiar sounding (the tonal), with an unusual use of that material. The tonal piano part of the first song, for example. Is countered by different harmonic regions implied in the vocal line. The recitative-like style of the third setting is followed by the driving energy of the final Dickinson song, before a sudden, succinct conclusion. The overall effect is quite moving, and the cycle, given its subject material, is devoid of any indulgence: every gesture has its point. Remember (2011) sets a text by Christina Rosetti and is stylistically consistent with the earlier cycle, with the added referential nod to Henry Purcell (five statements of the “remember me” idea from Dido’s lament in Dido and Aeneas) marking the piece as a moving memorial for Bernadette Greevy.
Anne-Marie O’Farrell’s Hoopoe Song is the most extended piece on the CD and it is an effective fusion of bell sonorities and birdsong in its invocation to prayer and reconciliation. There is a starkness to much of the music in this piece, culminating in an evocation of the eponymous bird, which flies over borders and walls in Jerusalem. The bells of the ending provide a suitably impersonal, powerful gesture, not devoid of hope. It is difficult for music to avoid being either overly illustrative or mawkish in relation to subject matter such as this: the directness of utterance here overcomes this and the resultant piece is quite moving. It is beautifully performed and characterised by Kerrigan and Collins.
Ina Boyle is the only non-living composer featured on the CD, but she is, in some ways, as ‘new’ a figure (if not as contemporary) as the other composers featured. Her Three Songs of Walter De La Mare, written in 1956, are characterful miniatures in essence. Her ability to capture a mood with short gestures is clearly in evidence here, as is her operatic leaning – the first two songs are like succinct scenas: the third, by contrast, is more haunting and sustained. Also included is her beautiful Sleep Song (1923), the ending of which leaves the voice in mid-air as the piano resolves the harmonic tension. It is very much of its time, and deserves to be as well-known as any of the more famous songs by English composers of the period. In other words, it fears nothing by comparison with the much more frequently performed and critically regarded work of any of Boyle’s more famous contemporaries. It is significant to have this neglected figure and her music included on this CD.
Elaine Agnew’s April Awake is predominantly epigrammatic, with two very short songs framing the more extended (but still brief) central one. It is perhaps a symptom of this succinctness that none of the songs has any post-text piano music: once the text is set, the piece is effectively over. The ideas in the central setting of The Hill-Farm do receive a little more space to explore and develop, but overall the feeling is that less is not always necessarily more: the songs don’t step outside the poems, and as a result neither does the music, despite some effective writing. Rhona Clarke’s smiling like that… is the odd-one-out on the CD for a number of reasons. Firstly it replaces the piano of the other items on the CD with tape, and then there is the matter of the piece itself. It incorporates a boombox beat which transports the music from a contemporary to a popular idiom, which means that the piece sits very oddly with the rest of the CD from a stylistic point of view. There is a dramatic vividness about parts of it which one could imagine giving a theatrical edge to a live performance, but overall the transposing of Molly Bloom (the text comes from the last portion of Ulysses) to a hip-hop environment is either provocative or peculiar (or both, perhaps). While a polystylistic setting can reflect a certain irony, humour or objectification with regard to the intensely personal text, placing the hip-hop allusion front and centre deprives the piece of a wider context and any possible subtext. It is strongly characterised, but more odd than convincing.
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