Hair standing on end. This is that thrilling. An album of previously unreleased Seán Ó Riada keyboard recordings. The album, from Gael Linn, features centrally Ó Riada’s last concert recording (penultimate concert) from March 1971, just months before his untimely death at the age of 40. Three tracks were recorded later that same year in private, while others, on the harpsichord, apparently date from 1966.
What we get is mostly his own solo keyboard settings of some of the great Irish airs as well as some of the (to me) not so great, and a few tunes. (Track 13, mis-named here, according to a reliable source, ‘The Collier’s Reel’ when it’s actually ‘The Star of Munster’, features John Kelly, Willie Clancy and Tony MacMahon joining in. You couldn’t make it up if you were Myles na gCopaleen himself.)
Some of the melodies and even the way he plays them have become so much a part of our culture, they are easily taken for granted and many listeners will. But projecting oneself back to that time is a part of the full listening experience here (and the audience sounds on the recording helps in that). When you do, you realise what an incredibly exciting time for indigenous music it must have been. He plays airs that would have been widely known already, including ‘Do Bhí Bean Uasal’ (commonly, ‘Carrickfergus’), ‘Carraig Donn’ (commonly, ‘Mountains of Mourne’) and ‘Sliabh na mBan’, but also others which, imagine!, Ó Riada himself first introduced to contemporary audiences, such as ‘Aisling Gheal’, ‘Port na bPúcaí’ and ‘Cois an Ghaorthaigh’.
But it’s not all a retro-fitting experience. The best tracks, especially ‘Port na bPúcaí’ itself, are just totally sublime in and of themselves, highly imaginative and still absolutely fresh stylistically. (Bizarrely, I’m reminded of the first time I listened to Ligeti’s piano études, and occasionally of the calm of Blue Nile’s Paul Buchanan’s last album.)
The first 3 tracks, ‘Do Bhí Bean Uasal’ (2.50), ‘Carraig Donn’ (3.34) and ‘An Chúilfhionn’ (1.17), were recorded in a closed session in Trinity’s Examination Hall. The piano and the recording both sound great, and while the airs themselves are sentimental they are not, to my ear, played too sentimentally or milked in that sense. They are delivered quite directly and simply but with lovely expression and sensitivity. I give in to them easily. And I sense that Ó Riada did too. You can feel the stillness within him, Tony MacMahon put it to me.*
The next 10 tracks are from the concert in Earlsfort Terrace, and here he seems to be looser and more playful in his approach to the music, varying his volume (dynamics, if you prefer) and spacing between notes (intervals) a lot more. It is powerful music from a superb pianist, in my view, totally in control of and at one with his material. At times I find myself physically letting go in the music, so gorgeous are the melodies and convincing is the playing.
‘Port na bPúcaí’ is given a highly individual treatment, totally different from any version I’ve heard before and absolutely thrilling to the ear. He underpins it with a Baléro-like pulse, giving it a very structured form throughout, that is certainly unexpected but that totally wins me over it’s so well handled. And he climbs off up a fabulously ghostly dissonant side-road at one stage, almost completely fading out before returning to a gentler statement of the melody. While ‘An Buachaill Caol Dubh’ and ‘Aisling Gheal’ are not as adventurous, they are totally charming. ‘Codlaígí Éiníní’ (recently given new life by Iarla Ó Lionaird with the Ghost Trio) has a lovely gentle lullaby rhythm that Ó Riada quietly toys with over an extended treatment (– the second longest track on the album at just over five minutes) with minimal variations on both hands. As elsewhere on the CD, he clearly and justifiably believes here in the simple beauty of the melody being enough to sustain a prolonged natural treatment. Tony MacMahon put it that Ó Riada was at times paring the melodies right down to the bone. Because of its specular nature, I’m reminded of Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel, but this is considerably lighter in mood. Interestingly Ó Riada, by design of course, ends it suddenly mid-stream after the first phrase of the second part, hanging it there, mid-air.
I’m not as keen on the sound of solo harpsichord, and especially after such a series of sweet treatments the jangling and upbeat ‘The Three Sea Captains’ wrecks my head. Thankfully it’s under two minutes long, but why insert it in there amongst the delicate piano pieces, I can’t understand. It is followed by another dance tune, ‘The Garden of Daisies’ which is beautifully played on the piano (feckin coughers, though) and induces some mid-music audience reaction – could it be Tony MacMahon? The longest track on the album, ‘Marbha Luimnigh’ follows, first played on the harpsichord, very simply, with hardly any base notes and very few chords, accentuating the tune’s “story”. At the two-minute mark you can hear the swishes of Ó Riada shifting to the piano (and the sound of a mic being upset) where he plays the piece more full-bodied, but still very controlled and staccato. At four minutes he switches back to the harpsichord to deliver a final, lusher rendition, but still with plenty of dramatic choppiness.
‘Cois an Ghaorthaigh’ or ‘An Cúl Dubh Ré’ (being heard regularly as a song on radio and television these days as part of The Gloaming’s ‘Opening Set’ track) and ‘Bean an Fhir Rua’ (actually ‘Bean Dubh an Ghleanna’, says Tony) are beautifully presented and the latter is used to loosen the tie a little and lead into a dance during which there are various voices to be heard, including Ó Riada’s, I think, encouraging the audience reaction, which in the next track, labelled ‘The Collier’s Reel’, after a gentle first statement by Ó Riada is then let rip altogether – when the other musicians leap on board, dominated in the sound mix by Tony’s accordion. The change in energy is quite something.
The next 11 tracks are harpsichord solos, some of which were, according to the notes, used as incidental music for a Gael Linn release to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. The album oddly includes a “bonus track” of the man himself casually relating a story from Macroom’s history.
A 12-page booklet gives “background notes to all tracks”, though I find them a little too slim on detail in relation to Ó Riada’s knowledge of the tunes and relationship to them, and it’s (for once) disappointing not to be told in the booklet anything about the engineering or production or project management of the album or the history of the physical recordings since they were originally made.
*I mentioned my enthusiasm for the CD to Tony MacMahon after I’d started on this and he walked straight to Gael Linn’s premises today and bought it. He is fulsome in his praise for the recording, suggesting that it is the first proper sharing of Ó Riada’s interior landscape with an audience; like he is inviting listeners to share a very private moment of contemplation with him. It is, Tony suggests, Ó Riada’s most personal statement, a very moving communication and all the more powerful for being his last, albeit coming to us 40-odd years later.
Why so long? As I say, I’d like to know more about the history of this material.
- Do Bhí Bean Uasal
- Carraig Donn
- An Chúilfhionn
- An Buachaill Caol Dubh
- Port na bPúcaí
- Aisling Gheal
- Codlaígí Éiníní
- The Three Sea Captains
- The Garden of Daisies
- Limerick’s Lamentation/Marbhna Luimnigh
- Cois an Ghaorthaigh
- Bean an Fhir Rua
- The Collier’s Reel
- Cath Chéim an Fhia
- Cáit Ní Dhuibhir
- Óro ‘sé do Bheatha Abhaile
- Maidin Luan Cincíse
- The Rights of Man
- Príosún Chluain Meala
- An tSeanbhean Bhocht
- An Droimfhionn Donn Dílis
- Ó’ Bhean a’ Tí, Cén Bhuairt Sin Ort?
- Sliabh na mBan
- M’Uilleagán Dubh Ó
- ‘Carthaigh na gCeann’ (seanchas)
Other reading on Ó Riada that might be of interest:
and of course