Time changes everything: nowadays you can't buy a harp record without hearing Turlough O'Carolan, in one tune or several. It was different in the 'Seventies; this was the first album entirely devoted to Carolan's music. The task went to Derek Bell: mainstay of The Chieftains, he uses different harps for different moods, even dubbing three parts at once. Bathed in echo, the notes rise up peaceful and ordered, persistent as memory. And Carolan's memory will be preserved; that's obvious from hearing this album.
Bell picked the tunes and arranged them simply; harmonic drones were added to the published melodies. This brings a harpsichord effect to "Sidh Beag agus Sidh Mor," the first tune Carolan wrote. Other songs fit the pattern: if it sounds "Irish," it's played on metal strings for hard, tense sound. The prize among these is "Carolan's Quarrel": dainty at first, the waltz grows melancholy inspired, says the legend, by a fight over whiskey.
When he turns to the modern (gut-string) harp, Derek plays gently, the sound of a lively ballroom. Right hand keeps time, the left races through classical filigrees really effective on "Carolan's Concerto." The sound is full, a band in itself when joined by his mates in The Chieftains, Derek is restrained behind the fiddles and pipes. These seem crowded to me, a little too fancy; I prefer "Bridget Cruise," with its breathy flute and emotive strings. Such music needs little embellishment: its strength is felt when the first note is heard. With these eloquent readings, Derek Bell speaks for Carolan as no book ever could. - John Barrett
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