Like other communities in Europe that have historically suffered political repression the Celtic peoples of the British Isles have for centuries expressed their culture through music. Indeed, Irish and Scottish folk music is respected by many as one of the supreme artistic exports of these islands. Mary McCarthy makes a good case for just this assertion, though fails to fully convey the emotion inherent in many of the songs she performs.

This is less a problem with McCarthy's performance in itself and more with her overall musical style. Her delicate medley of folk tunes was polished and at times quite stirring. From lilting lullabies to buoyant jigs, her range was impressive, a fact accentuated by her deft use of dynamics and complex harmonies. McCarthy is a classically trained pianist and this was reflected not only in her playing but also in her choice of music. She did her audience a considerable service by contextualising the music she played, intelligently showing the links between 18th century Irish jigs and the music of Mozart and Bach.

A difficulty with trying to bring together the disparate worlds of classical and folk music, however, is that while they may share some fundamental qualities, they are stylistically very different. The piano is the perfect instrument for a dainty sonata by Mozart, but folk music is a more rough and tumble affair. This is reflected, among other things, in the furious fiddle melodies typical of the genre. McCarthy's arrangements for piano were perfectly sound from a technical point of view, but did not really manage to capture the spirit of the music.

What's more, by staging a performance for solo piano only, McCarthy disowned the haunting Irish and Gaelic lyrics that can make listening to songs of this kind such a moving experience. A ballad charting the tribulations of a group of Scottish peasants forced from their land by sheep farmers and shipped off to Canada should have been dripping with pathos. Devoid of any singing or accompaniment, however, it was rendered rather staid.

McCarthy is a very successful folk pianist and is obviously a talented composer and musician. If you're a fan of folk music, or Ireland and Scotland in general, then she'll probably appeal. If not, then go and listen to a regular Celtic folk ensemble - it'll be a far more rousing experience than this.

Reviews by Andrea Valentino

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Performances

The Blurb

‘McCarthy beguiles with understatement and glistens with melodic clarity ... the only recent solo piano recording of the Gaelic an Irish traditions that I can recommend without hesitation’ (Peter Urpeth, LivingTradition.co.uk).

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