CD Reviews: Masters of Tradition

CD Reviews: Masters of Tradition

RTÉ lyric fm CD117

This double CD presents thirty-two tracks performed by forty-two of Ireland’s finest traditional musicians, recorded in concert in 2003-2007 at the Masters of Tradition Festival which takes place annually at Bantry House, West Cork. It’s published by Ireland’s public service broadcaster, RTÉ, and it is a collection – maybe even an anthology – of some very fine performances which give a strong sense of the high level of ambition in the Festival’s programming.  It also gives the listener some insight into what’s been going on at the upper end of small-scale traditional music performance at the Festival in those four years. The music content is wide-ranging and covers a good representative selection of instrumental and vocal music in Irish and English.  Fourteen of the tracks are solo performances and the remaining eighteen tracks are performed in various ensembles and accompanied formats.

The mix of performers includes well-known professional touring musicians and the less publicly known artists who provide the inspiration as well as the performance standards and repertoire for many working musicians. I should say, however, that you’ll have to take my word for this, because aside from a welcome but brief overview note by Ellen Cranitch, the publishers of the CD seem to assume that (a) you know all this already, or (b) you don’t want or need to know any of it, or (c) this information is not relevant or necessary to accompany such a collection of luminary performers.

I won’t list all the performers here, but I can tell you that were I to do that, and list all the track titles, then that would give you virtually all of the information provided on this publication. The bareness of the graphic design, the absence of biographical information on the artists and the absence of any information on the pieces performed by the artists left me feeling short-changed and irritated. But perhaps this approach to design and production is telling me to let the music speak for itself? Maybe so, but I’m not convinced that this minimal and lazy approach does either the recorded artists or the listener any service.  Had this been presented as one of those 42 of the BEST trad artists EVER!!! compilations then we’d have a different argument.

From what I can tell, the performances here are all recorded in live concert settings and this allows more edginess and texture in the performances than studio recordings often allow. Remember that this is music and song for performing in the company of people, so live recording can often capture human touches that won’t survive in a studio setting.

What I enjoyed most about the recordings on these discs was the chance to hear so many solo unaccompanied performances by Catherine McEvoy, Gerry O’Connor, Martin Hayes, Ronan Browne, John Flanagan and others. These days it’s unusual indeed to get so much good exercise for the ear on any CD and I was energised and engaged by the unaccompanied tracks in particular.

The more I listened to and considered this double CD it became clear that this is exactly the kind of production that would work better as a body of downloadable content rather than as a CD object.

By the way, those with superb eyesight or a very powerful magnifying device will see that the publishing and copyright credits (i.e. the rights to the intellectual property) for the music on this production are claimed by RTÉ lyric fm and not by the various artists represented on the recordings. I wonder does this tell us anything about RTÉ’s priorities here?

Published on 1 November 2008

Dermot McLaughlin is a fiddle player and currently Chairman of the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

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