Makaris: Wisps in the dell

Classical era arrangements of traditional Celtic folk songs
New Focus Recordings FCR916

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This delightful CD offers a selection of Scottish and Irish folksongs in arrangements by classical composers. As part of the vogue in things Celtic which followed the Jacobite rising and the Ossian craze, a number of enterprising publishers in London secured the services of leading continental composers to ‘set’ mainly Scottish folk songs. In this process of ‘setting’, the angular modality of the melodies was generally ironed out, while the texts often had to be ‘civilised’ too – this would seem to us to water down the original appeal of the traditional music and powerfully raw folk texts, but this was the price of capturing the attention of the large amateur market which would make this enterprise viable. The settings by Haydn and Beethoven are relatively familiar, but the Makaris have spread their net wide and trawled in settings by Schubert, Pleyel, Hummel, Neukomm, Weber, Kuhlau, Kozeluch and Clementi. They take a free approach to the realisation of these settings, both from the point of view of instrumentation and elaboration of melodies and counter-melodies. In some accounts, a heavy fortepiano backbeat sounds a little bit of an indulgence, but elsewhere their approach definitely enhances their material. Vocalist Fiona Gillespie opts for a distinctly folky voice production, but her delightfully pure voice and subtle ornamentation represent a winning combination. Knowing many of these original folksongs, it is fascinating to hear the fingerprints of the better-known composers on their settings. Particularly striking is Beethoven’s uncompromising approach – his publisher worried that the settings would be beyond the amateurs he was targeting, but Beethoven refused to compromise! Equally charming are settings by Hummel and Weber, who fresh from the triumph of his ‘Freischütz’ is thoroughly imbued with folk melody. In a delightful touch, the band have commissioned their bass player to add to the repertoire with his own setting of ‘The Bonnie House o’ Airlie’ which takes this 18th- and 19th-century tradition firmly into the 21st century!

D. James Ross

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