CD Reviews: The West Ocean String Quartet & Matt Molloy

The Guiding Moon, West Ocean Records, WORCD 101 The West Ocean String Quartet’s second CD exemplifies the continuing interest of musicians in extending the boundaries of traditional music, in this case framing the music within the context of an art music...

The Guiding Moon, West Ocean Records, WORCD 101

The West Ocean String Quartet’s second CD exemplifies the continuing interest of musicians in extending the boundaries of traditional music, in this case framing the music within the context of an art music ensemble. The quartet’s members themselves have vast experience across a range of styles: Seamus McGuire’s fiddling has embraced both local repertoires and the transnational (with Buttons and Bows); Niamh Crowley has worked extensively both as a soloist and with major Irish ensembles; and Ken Rice’s playing has ranged from the baroque to popular music. Yet it is cellist and composer Neil Martin’s voice which predominates here, as four of the pieces are new compositions of his, the others being his arrangements of traditional material.

Matt Molloy, famed as a soloist and for his work with the Bothy Band and the Chieftains, is featured on the first of the two suites, ‘The Guiding Moon’. Here the music is firmly grounded in the tradition, both in its form (reel, air and jig) and arrangement – the flute is very much to the forefront, and is at its most effervescent in the meaty jigs which round off the suite. Because of this, the music seldom breaks away from an eight-bar structure, and only occasionally does the quartet writing progress beyond a continuo-style supporting role to a more multi-layered style. The same is true in the polka set, although the mbira-inspired jig ‘The Happy Camper’ has more verve and invention in its arrangement. Of the airs, the Schubertian arrangement of ‘Silent, Oh Moyle’ has a beautiful starkness and simplicity, and while ‘The Lark in the Clear Air’ evokes the required nostalgia, it’s perhaps overly faithful to the familiar version heard on Mo Cheol Thú. The other pieces rely less on the tradition as a source, and ‘A Space for Dreaming’ is well named, serving as a gently ethereal opening to the CD. The substantial suite ‘Some Vague Utopia’ is inspired by Yeats, and the lyrical and romantic style of its first two movements will greatly appeal to many listeners. There’s more bite to the third movement, where a reel cleverly emerges from a dark ostinato passage, but those used to more experimental writing will probably find these works too safe.

Overall, Martin’s approach goes a bit further than simply applying a classical veneer to the traditional material, but ultimately I found it unsatisfying – the arrangements and compositions aren’t adventurous enough as contemporary music, but neither are they truly integrated with the traditional voice as on other recent collaborations. Given the musicians involved, it’s not surprising that the playing is impeccable throughout, but it’s Molloy’s contribution that really stands out, and should ensure that the suite ‘The Guiding Moon’ gets the attention it merits.

Published on 1 January 2007

Adrian Scahill is a lecturer in traditional music at Maynooth University.

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