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Irish Rambles

Music by
Turlough O'Carolan
reviewed by

SoundArt Recordings    SAR-2254

Music of O'Carolan - Ireland's Bard. © SoundArt Recordings

Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738) was one of the last Irish harpist-composers and the only one whose songs survive, both words and music, in any quantity. We have about 220 that are demonstrably his, and many more of less-certain authorship. He was famous enough in his own lifetime that a collection of his music was published in Dublin, and he is widely recognised as Ireland's national composer.

This disc's liner notes and publicity material present him as a crossover composer, saying his music 'inspires performers today in classical chamber ensembles as well as in populist folk groups,' and that the disc casts 'new light on the primitive elegance of O'Carolan's folky-chamber music.' As a trained professional harpist, Turlough O'Carolan was at the pinnacle of his tradition but trying to align him with art-music composers is unfair.

We usually contrast 'classical' and 'folk' in terms of named individuals composing within a sophisticated art-music tradition and notating extended works for specific combinations of instruments and voices, as against unknown people producing simple music for unaccompanied voice or melody instrument which is then preserved only in an aural tradition.

Carolan is a named individual whose works were preserved in written form, but that is the limit of his 'classical' attributes. His works are all unaccompanied, short, harmonically simpler than anything in the art music of his time, and preserved aurally alongside the jigs and reels they resemble. Most of his tunes are in simple binary form (two sections, each repeated); each half is usually eight bars, making the whole work about a minute long. His famous 'Concerto' [listen -- track 2, 0:00-0:29] is one of his longest pieces at a bit under two minutes.

To adapt such short pieces to concert presentation, folk musicians typically play each tune two or three times, changing instruments for variety, and/or run two or more tunes together in a 'set' or medley. Butch Baldassari plays mandolin and its long-necked Greek cousin the bouzouki, while John Mock plays guitars, bouzouki, concertina, harmonium and low and high (penny) whistles. They extend their duo possibilities by multi-tracking, so that we hear as many as four or five instruments together.

The Concerto and 'Catherine Nowlan' stand alone but the other eight tracks are medleys. Track 3 is fairly typical: Eleanor Plunkett opens with low whistle (Mock) backed by guitar (Mock); concertina (Mock) and finally mandolin (Baldassari) join in, and then the second tune, John Drury begins with solo guitar, to be joined sequentially by mandolin, whistle and concertina [listen -- track 3, 0:25-2:08].

Perhaps the musicians' unsustainable view that Carolan's music is 'classical' explains their performance approach, which is rather sedate, rhythmically square and almost devoid of the characteristic Irish lilt. The result, in any case, is tuneful but too pedestrian to hold the attention for long.

Copyright © 10 January 2008 Malcolm Tattersall, Townsville, Australia


Music of O'Carolan - Ireland's Bard

SAR-2254 Stereo FIRST RELEASE 48'40" SoundArt Recordings (undated)

Butch Baldassari, mandolin, bouzouki; John Mock, guitars, concertina, low and high whistles, harmonium, bouzouki

Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738): Young William Plunkett Set (Young William Plunkett; Planxty Nancy McDermott); Carolan's Concerto; Eleanor Plunkett / John Drury; George Brabazon / Morgan Magan; Rondo (Planxty Irwin / John O'Connor / Lord Inchiquin); Planxty Browne Set (Planxty Browne / Planxty Drew / Planxty Mary O'Neill); Blind Mary / Sheebeg and Sheemore; Carolan's Draught / Hewlett; Fanny Power / Baptist Johnston; Catherine Nowlan


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