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Album: Spiritual Music From The Hebrides
Label: Lanntair
Tracks: 12

The music on this CD was recorded live at An Lanntair Arts Centre at Stornoway on the Isle Of Lewis in August 2016, at the flagship musical event of the Arts Centre's Creative Place Award celebrating the Gaelic psalm singing tradition which has developed over hundreds of years as part of the island's Presbyterian church services.

Taking part were psalm singers and precentors from the islands of Lewis and Harris alongside a number of classical and traditional singers and musicians, so this is less a direct and continuous exposition of the unique "sean nòs" music than a specially configured sequence which reflects its spirituality by presenting it in a slightly different musical context, I'd imagine with a wider (shall we say secular?) audience in mind. That's not to say it's guilty of "dumbing down" the original style, nor ignoring it - not in the slightest. Indeed, the psalms, in authentic performance, are intelligently interspersed amongst the instrumental and solo vocal items, which themselves do not in any way dilute the sources. Even so, for me the four choral psalms led by a precentor are high points, where the magical effect of the combined voices is something akin to that of the music of the Russian orthodox church in its involving, intensely atmospheric nature - although of course it comes from a completely different tradition, and its call-and-response elements are probably closer to the church music of the southern States. The musical idiom is equally compelling however - here I feel its fulsome timbre ebbing and flowing like the waves breaking on Hebridean shores. (Anyone who falls under the incomparable spell of this music is recommended to seek out some of the archive recordings from the Greentrax catalogue.)

But in truth, the entire sequence is extremely listenable; I'm aware that some folks might be put off by the idea of 46 minutes of "spiritual" music, but every single item is a considered gem in its own right, and the potentially "alien" nature of the choral psalms themselves is both compensated and complemented by the intimate, heartfelt and persuasive performances by the various soloists with or without a limited degree of instrumental backing. And if the idea of unrelieved choral voices sounds intimidating, then you can just revel in the female vocal duet on the psalm An Gradh A Thug Thu Dhomhsa. The music itself may be totally unfamiliar to the vast majority of listeners, and the language barrier will inevitably exist to a certain extent (everything is sung in Gaelic, naturally), but this should not be insurmountable if you let the sheer beauty of the music into your consciousness. Just two items may provide a vestige of familiarity for the non-specialist listener - Wetherby (psalm 73) uses a tune which some will recognise, while the closing section of the lilting final item Faisg Air Mo Dhia is sung in English. The eleven musicians, under the leadership of Duncan Chisholm, are used sparingly and sensitively (variously playing piano, guitar, cello, violin). The individual singers are sublime - Isobel Ann Martin sings two pieces and Emma Macleod and Jenna Cumming one apiece, while Chrissie Morrison's a cappella performance of An Neamhnaid Luachmhor forms a stunning centrepiece to the disc. The special nuances of these individual voices are brilliantly captured by the faithful recording, which also copes very well with the dynamic range of the nineteen-strong choir at the other end of the spectrum.

This disc's a keeper, for sure - but the documentation is sparse to say the least, and I'd have welcomed just a modicum of information on the individual pieces as well as a track-by-track breakdown of personnel involved. The music deserves more.

David Kidman