When George Frideric Handel travelled to Ireland in 1741 to work in the city of Dublin, he enjoyed a year-long creative sojourn working with many local musicians who sang in his concerts at the new Music Hall on Fishamble Street. Considering that London was a thriving musical city at this time, Handel's decision to work in Ireland raises interesting questions that the conductor and harpsichordist Bridget Cunningham has been exploring through a scholarship from The Finzi Trust. That her research into this period of Handel's life has become the inspiration for further research into early Irish music is a reflection of the multi-disciplinary approach that Cunningham takes to her work, and this album represents much more than one might realize at first glance.
Ireland's Enchantment is an unusual programme which defies categorization either as early music, folk or crossover. When Cunningham's research began to turn up ancient Irish tunes in the archives of Dublin, she realized that they could be performed by a baroque ensemble, and Emerald Baroque was born. The musicians are Laura Justice (recorders), Farran Scott (baroque violin), Jennifer Bullock (viola da gamba, cello and psaltery), Breda McKinney (soprano) led by Cunningham on the harpsichord. Each member of this ensemble has a classical background as well as Irish music in their heritage and as a result, their sound segues between the folk and 'classical' (baroque) genres with a fluidity that is delightfully refreshing.
The programme draws most notably on tunes by Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738), the blind harpist who is sometimes called the 'National Composer of Ireland'. Already the subject of many excellent recordings - most notably by Andrew Lawrence-King (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77375, 1996) – his music in this programme offers a familiarity to connoisseurs of Irish music and establishes a springboard from which Emerald Baroque dive into less familiar territory. Of all the anonymous compositions represented here, the bewitching 'She Moved Through the Fair' stands out as particularly worthy of mention. For those of us who grew up listening to cross-over singers, such as Maddy Prior, Breda McKinney's delicate soprano voice can sound rather unconfident on first hearing. But despite the lack of grit in her sound the innocence of this performance is mesmeric and creates a haunting atmosphere. Handel is reported to have said that he would have gladly forgone a few of his own compositions to have written 'Eileen Aroon', and it is clear that Emerald Baroque have also found a special connection with this song as it is by far the finest performance on this album.
Elsewhere I am less convinced by several stylistic decisions these performers make. That they are so strong in the jigs such as 'Humours of Dublin' and 'Port Chuil Aodha' highlights a lack of definition in the more introspective music such as 'Si Beog Si Mor' which, for my taste, needs more rhythmic direction. Particularly pleasing, however, is Bridget Cunningham's own composition 'Day of Deities' based on a baroque ground. The new works are thought-provoking as they not only suggest that the tradition of improvising and arranging of existing folk tunes is alive and well, but they help us to hear baroque instruments anew.
Ireland's Enchantment is the first album by the independent label Rose Street Records, one of a burgeoning number of small companies who have recently emerged into the commercial market. Future projects with Emerald Baroque include 'Handel in Dublin', which explicitly explores Handel's musical life in Ireland and includes concert music by Dubourg, Roseingrave and other baroque Irish composers. If Ireland's Enchantment is a fantasy inspired by the musical world in which Handel would have found himself during his Irish odyssey, the next programme promises to explore this fascinating chapter of music history further. This album will appeal to Handel-lovers, folk musicians and music historians alike.
By Ed Breen