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CD reviews

Celtic music, original & arranged

[I] "Give me your hand - Geminiani & The Celtic Earth"
Les Basses Réunis
Dir: Bruno Cocset
rec: Feb 13 - 17, 2016, Vannes (F), Auditorium des Carmes
Alpha - 276 (© 2017) (69'38")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Lorenzo BOCCHI (fl 1720-1729): Plea rarkeh na rourkough, or A Irish weding improved with diferent divisions after an Italian maner with a bass and chorus; Francesco GEMINIANI (1687-1762): Concerto grosso in d minor, op. 7,2 (andante); La forest enchantée (andante affettuoso); O Bessy Bell; Sleepy Body; Sonata for violin and bc in e minor, op. 1,3; The Broom of Cowdenknowes - Bonny Christy; Turlough O'CAROLAN (1670-1738): Capten Magan; Colonel John Irwin; Creamonea; John Drury (second air); John O'Connor; Lord Gallaways lamentation; Planksty; Ragg set by a Gentleman; Sheebeg and Sheemore; Sqr. Woodes's lamentation on y refusauall of his half pense; The seas are deep; When she cam ben she bobed; Ruaidri Dáll Ó Catháin (c1570-c1650): Da mihi manum [Give me your hand]; James OSWALD (1710-1769): Barbra Allan; Steer her up & Had her Gaun; The Banks of Severn; The Banks of Sligoe; The Bonny Boat Man; The Murray's March; The Northern Lass; To Dauntin Me

Bruno Cocset, 'Bettera' viola, tenor violin, tenor violin 'alla bastarda'; Guido Balestracci, perdessus de viole, treble viol, lyria viol; Emmanuel Jacques, tenor violin; Richard Myron, double bass, violone; Esther Mirjam Griffioen, gothic harp, triple harp; Bertrand Cuiller, harpsichord, organ

[II] "The Celtic Lute"
Ronn McFarlane, lute
rec: June 27 - 30, 2017, Boyce, VA, Sono Luminus Studios
Sono Luminus - DSL-92225 (© 2018) (55'59")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Turlough O'CAROLAN (1670-1738): Blind Mary; Carolan's Dream; Carolan's Welcome; Fanny Power; George Brabazon; Lady Atherny; Miss Noble; Separation of the Body and Soul; Sheebag and Sheemore; The Sees are Deep; [Tune without a title]; James OSWALD (1710-1769): The Flowers of Edinburgh; trad (Ireland): Banish Misfortune; Cliffs of Moher; Pipe on the Hob; The Butterfly; The Kid on the Mountain; The Monaghan Jig; trad (Scotland): Flee Over the Water; Hey My Nanny & Guzzle Together; Hoop Her and Gird Her; If I Had a Bonny Lass; The Battle of Harlaw; The Flaggon; The Lone Vale; The Stool of Repentance

The two discs under review have the word 'Celtic' in their titles. But what exactly is Celtic? Robert Aubry Davis, in the liner-notes to Ronn McFarlane's recording 'The Celtic Lute', states: "There's a loose definition (or maybe tacit agreement) that Celtic Music is found in those European cultures where the Celtic tribes invaded. Aside from Ireland and Scotland, Wales qualifies, as does Brittany, the Galician part of Spain, the Isle of Man." Both McFarlane and Bruno Cocset confine themselves to the music of Ireland and Scotland. There is a similarity in their approach to this subject: they both play traditional music partly or largely on other instruments than those for which is was originally intended. Both in Irish and Scottish folk music the harp played a crucial role. Only in Cocset's recording the harp now and then turns up. There is also a difference: whereas most of McFarlane's programme consists of original folk music, Cocset turns his attention to traditional music as it was arranged in various ways by composers of the 18th century.

That was the time of a kind of Scottish renaissance. This could be explained by two factors. Firstly, in 1707 Scotland and England became one kingdom under the name of 'Great-Britain' as a result of the Act of Union. Many Scots considered this an attempt at assimilation, at the cost of their own identity. Secondly, the early 18th century saw the rise of the Enlightenment, part of which was a vivid interest in everything 'natural' and 'simple', which was exposed in the folklore of a country. The fascination of Georg Philipp Telemann by the 'barbarious beauty' of Polish folk music bears witness to that.

An important mark in the process of the rediscovery of Scottish folklore was the publication of collections of Scottish songs by the poet Allan Ramsey (1686-1758). In 1719 Scots Songs appeared, and two further publications date from between 1724 and 1727. In 1725 the singer William Thomson (fl 1695-1753) published Orpheus Caledonius, a collection of the best Scotch songs set to Musick. The latter included melodies, but Ramsey's collections included just the titles of the melodies to which the songs could be sung.

The most remarkable name in Bruno Cocset's programme is that of Francesco Geminiani. He was one of many Italian musicians and composers who settled in England, where since around 1700 Italian music was extremely popular. In 1749 he published A Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick, whose appendix includes a number of Scottish folk tunes in his own arrangements. Four of them are songs (Scottish tunes with vocal parts), three are airs made into sonatas for two violins and a bass and four are airs, melodies transcribed for violin and transverse flute or violin, cello and harpsichord. All three categories are represented here with one piece. O Bessy Bell is an example of the first category, The Broom of Cowdenknows & Bonny Christy represents the second, and Sleepy body is a specimen of the third. The difference between the first and third is nullified, as the vocal part of O Bessy Bell is performed instrumentally. The complete set of arrangements is included in a disc with Scottish songs by Geminiani and Haydn, recorded by The Rare Fruits Council.

Two other composers figure prominently in this programme: Turlough O'Carolan and James Oswald. With the former we are in Ireland. Early editions of Irish music were published in 1724 and 1728, but it was at the end of the 18th century that it was given serious attention. An essential element was the interest in the harp: the first harp festival took place in Granard in 1784 and in 1792 the Belfast Harp Festival was held. The organist Edward Bunting (1773-1843) transcribed the melodies and the playing styles of harpers in The Ancient Music of Ireland.

O'Carolan was born in Nobber, Co. Meath; at the age of 18 he was blinded by smallpox. O'Carolan was educated as a harpist, but he seems not to have been a really good one. Gráinne Yeats, in the article on O'Carolan in New Grove, states that "he had begun the harp too late to master the difficult technique of the wire-strung instrument." People he met suggested to him that he should turn his interest to composing songs. "Thus he wrote his first, Sheebeg and Sheemore, and he continued to write songs for the rest of his life. His habit was to compose a tune while on his way to the house of a patron, and then to write suitable words for it. The song would then be ready for performance when he arrived at his destination." The problem for modern performers is that he never wrote down his songs; they were handed over in oral tradition and published in collections later. As they consist of only a single line, it is not known how he harmonized or accompanied his melodies. It is notable that he mixed traditional Irish music with elements of contemporary Italian art music. It is known that he greatly admired Geminiani.

With James Oswald we return to Scotland. He was born in Crail, and educated at the cello. His first job was that of dancing teacher. Among his first compositions are tunes for scordatura violin. He started to publish his own compositions, among them A Collection of Curious Scots Tunes of 1742, which appeared in two volumes. From this collection Cocset selected the pieces for his programme. Oswald enjoyed the admiration of Geminiani, who wrote that until Oswald's time "melody was entirely rude and barbarous, and that he found means at once to civilize and inspire it with all the native gallantry of the Scotish nation". He was well acquainted with the main styles of his time; his Scots Tunes have harmonisations which show the influence of the Italian style.

The least-known figure in Cocset's programme is Lorenzo Bocchi, another Italian immigrant, who settled in Scotland rather than England. Little is known about him; he lived in Edinburgh in 1720 and later moved to Dublin. His only collection of music is a set of sonatas for recorder, violin, cello and bass viol, which also includes a cantata with Scottish lyrics. His arrangement of an Irish air included here is part of A Colection of the most celebrated Irish Tunes, an anthology published in Dublin in 1724.

Cocset sums up the idea behind this programme thus: "You will have realised by now that the programme of our disc brings these four musical protagonists together in an imaginary meeting (or perhaps it actually took place!) in Dublin. They are linked by the spirit of their creative approach, by the stylistic mixtures and mutual influences their music stimulated." It has inspired him to add some music by Geminiani which has no connection to traditional music. In his Sonata in e minor, op. 1,3, Cocset has included a folk song arrangement by Oswald, My nanio, just before the closing allegro.

The result is a compelling programme which documents the connection between 'art music' and 'folk music', which today - in concerts of classical music at large, but also performances and recordings of early music - are largely separated worlds. That was very different in the 18th century. The above-mentioned Telemann was not the only composer who admired traditional music and was inspired by it.

We will never know how exactly O'Carolan's tunes were played. Obviously they were intended for the harp in the first place, but that does not exclude performances with other instruments. Oswald is an example of a composer, who incorporated traditional music in the then common genres of 'art music'. It is regrettable that this disc is not better documented; I would have liked to know Oswald's intended instrumentation.

That does not diminish in any way my appreciation of this disc, especially as the performances by Cocset and his colleagues are excellent. They show a good feeling for the specific character of this repertoire, even though neither of them has grown up with this kind of music.

Ronn McFarlane is a born American, but his name indicates that the family roots are in Scotland. Whether that has inspired him to turn his interest to Scottish music, the liner-notes don't tell, but fact is that back in the 1980s he started to perform and record Scottish music. For this kind of music he can turn to pieces specifically written out for the lute and included in a number of manuscripts from the 17th century. In his arrangements he took them as a model. There were no lute pieces of Irish music, but "[the] harp music of Turlough O'Carolan often fits the music amazingly well; and the traditional Scottish and Irish dance music can also be a good fit, though one needs to choose the tunes with care".

This programme is different from Cocset's, not only because of the difference in instrument(s), but also because most of the pieces McFarlane has chosen belong to traditional music. As he also includes pieces by O'Carolan and Oswald, this disc demonstrates the differences. The basic material may be the same, but it becomes quite clear that Oswald and O'Carolan were more sophisticated as composers than the anonymous players who created the original tunes.

McFarlane is an outstanding lute player, who delivers engaging performances of the pieces he has selected. His disc will attract both lovers of the lute and those who have a special interest in traditional music.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

Les Basses Réunis
Ronn McFarlane

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