By Peter McCalister
Patrick Molard has done a masterful job in this new CD, bringing to life well-known (and previously unpublished) tunes with the help of a small group of musicians. He rightly calls the album ‘light and shade’: there are moments of beauty and drama throughout.
The first piece is an unpublished tune from the Campbell Canntaireachd (Patrick is a noted master interpreter of this manuscript) One of the Cragich – which has been played by others including Barnaby Brown – though Patrick takes this tune to a new level with gradually increasing pace and accompanying percussion. It becomes ‘a lovely, lovely thing’, as they say on Masterchef.
This is followed by the dramatic masterpiece The Finger Lock. To listen to this at any time requires a sense of detachment, as the main notes are B, low A and low G. This very demanding tune may have been written by Ronald MacDonald to sort out the finger technique problems of one of his pupils. Patrick and his team start in ‘usual’ piobaireachd mode with the Urlar with percussion accompaniment, and then a saxophone counter-melody and harmonies actually make the growling melody and variations somewhat cheerful mid-way through the tune. I’ve played this tune a lot and I was pleasantly surprised, to be honest.
To stop completely at the end of the taorluath-a-mach and then build up the volume again to the end was a stroke of genius. If I had any criticism here it would be to ask for more tempo from the piper in the crunluath-a-mach where there is a slightly mad violin and percussion input instead. I don’t think this will be to everyone’s taste – though you certainly know you have heard some music by the time the last few smashes on the cymbals die away.
The Lament for the Little Supper is played in a free form by saxophone, with double bass and percussion – very interesting. Apparently the tune was chosen by the sax player as he liked the Urlar, and he extemporises on it – as pipers would have done in the years before the written score kept us so focused on the book.
The sound of the pipes in The Blind Piper’s Obstinacy comes creeping forward through a fog of other sounds. This tune is destined to be interpreted by other music groups, I feel sure, who hear this rendition by Patrick and team. After the dissonances and drama of the first tunes on the CD, this cheerful and harmonious piece comes as light relief – it could be used as backing music for ‘strip the willow’ in places. Was it Seamus MacNeil that used to call this piece unmusical? If I had a favourite on the CD, this would be it.
Left Hand is not a tune that gets heard much these days – played here by piper and drum-kit. I must admit I was not over-fond of the free-form percussion to start with, though the later work in which seemed to bring the two instruments together more was easier on the ear.
The CD ends with The Lament for the Union. As Patrick points out in the bi-lingual CD notes, the lovely Urlar and the dark/strange variations may be deliberately at odds with each other. Leaving politics aside, Patrick’s team start the tune with the double bass (Helene) playing the Urlar and first few variations pizzicato (plucked, not played with the bow). This is then combined with the piper playing the Urlar again while the Helene and other instruments carried on with the variations simultaneously. I was not sure at the end if the union of these works musically or not! So that’s a result then…..The tune ends with a powerful team performance of the taorluath variations.
So, in summary, plenty for the listener here. Patrick is a well-known authority on the big music but this is not an academic treatise. In fact he is doing much to bring piobaireachd to a wider audience. I have heard from his fellow piper (and Frenchie) Anne Lore, that she and group of musicians can fill a hall with hundreds of listeners in France playing piobaireachd with a twist. Murray Henderson did the same recently in Glasgow. Keep up the good work, Patrick: this is the new music.
• Download ‘Light and Shade’ tracks from iTunes here. Listen to more great piobaireachd playing on the PP Audio archive. There is a recording of William Geddes playing the Blind Piper’s Obstinacy mentioned above.