What a busy month August was. From the Silver Chanter through to the annual Piobaireachd Society recital, August has delivered a bumper crop of piping in every format one could ask for after such a drought. It is only fitting that this big month has been bookended by the big music.
The Piobaireachd Society recital has been held in St. Cecilia’s Hall at the University of Edinburgh in previous years and has always been well attended. This year’s event was held in the spiritual home of piping recitals: 16-24 Otago St, Glasgow. Known formerly as the College of Piping and now as The National Piping Centre incorporating the College of Piping’s Otago Street campus.
By Dan Nevans
The Piobaireachd Society is to be applauded for it’s commitment throughout the pandemic to ensure opportunities to enjoy and study ceòl mòr have been made available. I would like to think that this recital marks the end of the first wave of in-person performances in the post pandemic era, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
I found myself in a role I have become accustomed to in recent years as general dogsbody. As a member of the piping school staff at the NPC, we are all asked at times to go beyond our working hours to support the needs of the Centre or the needs of the art. Being a bit thick and soft hearted when it comes to anything to do with piping, I volunteered to open/ lock up the building on the day.
I just got back that afternoon from Fort William after competing at last week’s Argyllshire and Lochaber Gatherings. I burst into the house about a quarter to two in the afternoon and hurriedly set up my computer to attend the record-setting, short and well managed Competing Pipers Association AGM (plaudits to Derek Midgley, Callum Beaumont, and Ross Miller for their smooth running of the meeting). I then threw on the iconic Piobaireachd Society tie and headed for Otago Street.
The performance mandate for the Piobaireachd Society recital is excellent: No tuning, enter the room playing and leave the room playing. That’s it. No extra things, just the music presented in a palatable and engaging format. I’ve wondered for a while what could be done to make piobaireachd a more approachable audience experience and I think that this recital system is pretty good.
The first performer on the night was Craig Sutherland playing Lament for the Lowland Clearances, a plaintive melody brought to life by Craig’s lively and direct finger work. The combination of the robust chanter and rock solid drones was an excellent platform to present this piece on.
Craig was followed by Stuart Liddell and Pipe Major Donald MacLeod MBE’s Field of Gold. The shortest tune of the night but for me one of the finest melodies. Stuart’s playing is, as always, world class. To listen to a player of Stuart’s calibre perform a piece which, on paper, is of a novice level of difficulty, I always find an interesting experience.
Unlike the big tunes of the former winners piobaireachd level which can peak and trough, wind, and surge in the melodic line, Field of Gold follows a very straight forward Tertiary B format – A Phrase, B phrase, A Phrase, C Phrase. I enjoyed the nuance of Stuart’s approach greatly, the use of the melody notes after the tripling movements especially caught my ear. Stuart hangs onto them just ever so slightly longer than you would expect, losing nothing in tempo or delivery. A definite sign of control, composure and understanding.
Pipe Major Ben Duncan of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards was up next. Ben’s first tune of the night was Catherine’s Lament. A beautiful, romantic melody filled with sultry interval changes and sumptuous peaks and swells. An interesting note about this tune is that it only appeared as Catherine’s Lament in Angus MacKay; who Catherine was, or why we are lamenting for her, is unknown. The tune appears in other sources as The Fraser’s March. Certainly, in the later variation doublings we can hear that march-like quality coming through but that wonderful urlar swims with the heady emotion better suited to a lament. Ben did a great job bringing all the power out of this tune.
The last performer of the first half was Dr Decker Forrest. Decker played the Battle of the Pass of Crieff, a hard tune with lots of pitfalls hidden in the line. As it is such an oblique melody, I found I enjoyed it more once I was at home reading through the score in my Piobaireachd Society book (Vol 1, P15) with the recording playing. That’s not to say that Decker didn’t do a grand job with the tune, far from it. I felt it was a confident and well-studied approach. As an audience member I felt a security in the performance that the player was guiding me through this somewhat awkward melody with a true sense of understanding.
About ten minutes later, after the interval, Ben Duncan took to the stage again for his second tune, Lord Lovat’s Lament. I am a bit biased when it comes to this piece as in my opinion it is one of the greatest melodies in ceòl mòr. If I had my way, it would be played in elevators and by ice cream vans across the world, such is my continual enjoyment of the piece. Ben’s performance was excellent, smoothly moving through the melody, swelling the theme notes and bursting through the passing notes to relieve tension. A great effort.
Now Decker returns playing Archie Kenneth’s Lament for the Standard. Historically, I’ve never been a big fan of Archie Kenneth compositions. I always find that they sound a bit like excerpts from three other tunes. A bit mean spirited an observation perhaps. There’s gold in them hills I am sure, and Decker did a grand job bringing it out. Again, confident, and well-studied, smoothly executed on a good pipe.
Another Pipe Major Donald MacLeod MBE composition next with Craig Sutherland and Salute to a white Primrose. This is one of those Donald MacLeod compositions that’s conversational: the melody line drifts around some key notes and eventually gets to the point. Not that its unsatisfying in anyway. Instead of creating and releasing tension in short bursts, MacLeod has spread that effect across several bars. The piece is more of a conversation that ebbs and flows than several short statements. Craig’s light but direct style showed off this composition well.
The last tune of the night came from Stuart Liddell and a piece he is now somewhat synonymous with: Lament for the Dead. Stuart won the Inverness Gold Medal in 2000 playing this piece. Stately and swollen with meaning without ever being saccharine or dour, Stuart’s mastery of the instrument and the music was laid out for all to appreciate.
For the performer studying the tune it is important to note the depth of the low G gracenote in the leumluath movements and how Stuart uses this in subtly different ways throughout. These movements are integral to the performance of the piece and without clarity and consistency Lament for the Dead would fall flat on the ear.
Come the end of the night a dram was shared by those that wanted it and a silence retuned to Otago Street. My thanks go to the small but dedicated audience who enjoyed the show and the Piobaireachd Society for holding the event.
- Recordings of this recital are available to members on the Piobaireachd Society website. You can join here. Dan Nevans is a third generation piper, a former world pipe band champion, competing solo piper, teacher and writer. Dan’s first book, ‘Piobaireachd is for Everyone’, is available now via dnpiping.com. It will be reviewed on Piping Press in due course. Pictures by Darach Urquhart.