Classical CD Reviews

DONNACHA DENNEHY “Grá agus Bás” – Iarla Ỏ Lionáird, vocalist/ Dawn Upshaw, soprano/ Crash Ensemble/ Alan Pierson – Nonesuch

A strange but beautiful blend of the traditional with the new.

Published on May 10, 2011

DONNACHA DENNEHY “Grá agus Bás” = Grá agus Bás for singer and ensemble; That the Night Come for soprano and ensemble – Iarla Ỏ Lionáird, vocalist/ Dawn Upshaw, soprano/ Crash Ensemble/ Alan Pierson – Nonesuch Records 527063-2, 59:05 ****1/2:

Donnacha Dennehy is a new name for me and this release proves to be an absolutely mesmerizing introduction to his music. A native of Dublin, Ireland, Dennehy is a lecturer in music composition at Trinity College, where he also began his musical studies. It is clear that Dennehy brings a fascinating blend of traditional Celtic sounds and atmospheres as well as a very modern approach to traditional forms to his music. He had also studied composition at the University of Illinois with Salvatore Martirano (known for similar synthesis, such as his “O, O, O, that Shakespearian Rag” after T.S. Elliot) He pursued further studies in electronic music at the Hague, and at IRCAM, Paris. Dennehy also is the founder of the Crash Ensemble, Dublin’s now-renowned new music group, in 1997, and featured on this album.

Not at all familiar with Donnacha Dennehy’s music, I did not know what to expect. These two works are both reflective of his awareness and fascination with “sean-nós”, a form of inflected and ornamental folk singing, usually unaccompanied, that has its roots in the Irish countryside. (Readers may be familiar with other more “traditional uses” of this style to be found in the pop and world music realms such as that of Lisa Gerrard, Dead Can Dance or, perhaps, Clannad; though, in this context, I recognize that’s a stretch).  Grá agus Bás (“Love and Death”) was written as a collaboration with the present performer, Iarla Ỏ Lionáird, who is a master performer and archivist of the genre.  The results on this extended piece are immediately attention-getting. The text, from the traditional “the deed”, deals with themes of love and death, as the title implies. The ensemble of winds, strings, percussion; even some electronics, melds with Ỏ Lionáird’s mellow tenor to form a sound that is somewhere in a unique realm with bits of new age, ambient, minimalist and world music contributing to the mix. The effect is very nice, but very hard to characterize in familiar terms.

“That the Night Come” was written for Dawn Upshaw and is, essentially, a song cycle based on texts from the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. Unlike “Grá agus bás”, this work is not based on any exact traditional Celtic folk elements, although the composer acknowledges that there are references to some in the first and third songs. The opening bars of the opening song, “He wishes his beloved were dead”, are absolutely beautiful and arresting in their intensity. Dennehy does a masterful job of matching text to tone. Timbre matters in this cycle a great deal. The interplay between the clear, plaintive, always soul-wrenching voice of Dawn Upshaw and the shimmering keyboards, metal percussion, droning winds and strings is simply atmospheric. The closing song, “That the night come”; of the title, closes the cycle with the same gorgeous but somewhat sad tone that pervades the cycle and pervades much of Yeats’ imagery.

The program notes from Nonesuch annotator Bob Gilmore correctly point out that, for any composer such as Dennehy – seeking to do new things with traditional Irish folk elements – the risk is twofold. Some people will automatically consider altering any sean-nós a form of debauchery or fear that the results will border on the trite. Donnacha Dennehy has created a very engaging and unique style that seems very much his own and, wherein, there are moods ranging from the playful to the unsettling and nothing trite about it. This music is nearly impossible to describe. You simply must experience it and I predict that you will enjoy it and want to learn more about this brilliant young composer from a country that does not produce a lot of brilliant new composers; Dennehy is clearly one worth paying attention to.

— Daniel Coombs




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