CD review: Reclaiming the Celtic

Donnacha Dennehy: Gra agus Bas: Dawn Upshaw, Iarla O Lionaird, Crash Ensemble; Alan Pierson, conductor. Nonesuch 527063-2

I confess that my first thought, on putting on the new CD by Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, was, “Oh no, Celtic new music.” This is unfair to Dennehy, or far too kind to the brand of folkloric faux-Gaelic easy listening marketed as “Celtic” to an all-too-eager public.

“Gro agus Bas” (“Love and Death”) is a serious exploration of an Irish folk-music idiom, teased out into a range of fresh sounds: twangs and electronic pulsings and the clink of percussion, all eddying and coalescing around the keening phrases of a single human voice.

Dennehy is artistic director of the Crash Ensemble, an Irish new-music collective with international cachet and considerable chops (its principal conductor, Alan Pierson, is also known for his own group, Alarm Will Sound). The CD’s title work is based on a form of Irish traditional song called sean-nos; Dennehy worked with a leading proponent of the style, Iarla O Lionaird, recording him, sampling elements of his singing, and developing a score informed by the harmonic, rhythmic and intonational peculiarities of this kind of music. It’s based on excerpts of two traditional songs. O Lionaird repeats the phrases, testing, asserting, pulling his voice like taffy, while a gentle web of accompaniment — strings playing in high harmonics, sustained electronic tones, the insistent heartbeat of a percussive pulse — is woven around him, sometimes played in just temperament (a slightly but markedly different tuning system) to underscore the slightly primitive flavor. The result is an ecstatic vision set in a dreamscape of sound.

The second piece, “That the Night Come,” is a deliberate contrast. Counterbalancing O Lionaird’s roughhewn voice is Dawn Upshaw’s angelic one; counterbalancing the Irish folk-music tradition are poems by William Butler Yeats, whom the composer calls “another sacred cow.” Upshaw, phenomenally successful as a mainstream new-music specialist, has another winner here. In this piece, too, Dennehy picks the text into distinct phrases, having the singer repeat the same lines in different forms over accompaniments that include clouds of sound, active scampering on the piano, and percussion instruments plinking out bell tones like a miniature Javanese gamelan.


(Nonesuch Records)

If this recording has anything in common with the crossover genre of “Celtic music,” it might be its potential to delight a large audience. And if it’s cultural tourism, it’s on a very high level.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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