When I realized I had a chance to review today's CD I did so willingly without especially anticipating everything that it would contain. After all I knew something of the Riverdance music via extensive clips of the performance version on Public Television, but I did not think very much about it other than I was glad to listen.
So I popped the CD on my player first time last week. As it played I recognized parts and others not, but it all was nicely imbued with echoes of traditional Irish dance music and I came to understand something of Bill Whelan's flair and brilliance for concocting such things. And in the end I came to appreciate fully the grouping of three works that comprises the album--which might be called "Orchestral Music" but instead is named after the most familiar work, Riverdance: A Symphonic Suite (RTE Lyric CD 155).
The performances have much to recommend them. Soloists Sir James Galway on flute, Helena Wood on violin and Zoe Conway on fiddle realize their parts with artistry and a true feeling for the Celtic lining they are called upon to give to our musical air. The RTE National Symphony under David Brophy bring to the music all the enthusiasm and grace one could hope for, and the sonics are pretty near spectacular.
So to the music directly. The three works, that is. We are treated to "Linen and Lace" for starters, a danceful reel-ful Irish folk adaptation with the limber beauty of Maestro Galway on flute. There is pastoral repose in parts of all three works and it is a thing to drift within.
"Inishlacken" continues the lovely windings through hill and dale, this time with the evocative and beauteous pairing of fiddle and violin, the folkish and the classical edges of the music. And too the rhythmic energy of Whelan's music becomes ever more palpable.
Of course because of the step-dancing showcase that Riverdance so wonderfully is in its stage version, the rhythmic agility we hear so nicely rendered in "Inishlaken" comes even more dramatically to the forefront in "Riverdance: A Symphonic Suite." The spinning of exciting, shifting meter Irish Gaelic melody so wonderfully present helps the vibrant music stand quite well on its own as a thing-in-itself.
And as I come out of the listening experience with some repeated close listens I now can say that the entire program has a very effective climactic build-up that culminates in the Riverdance music. Could Emerson, Lake and Palmer have done a version of this Orchestra Suite? Sure and no doubt it would have been stirring. Yet the Orchestral Suite version would be ultimately the one that brings out the earnest pulsating lyricism of the music best, and is indeed the one to go for nearly 40 minutes to a kind of rapture. Copland's "Rodeo" comes to mind as a parallel, and both are in that sense worthy of one another for how they make of folk dance and orchestral-modern-classical a new thing, a new trunk grown out of the roots.
And now I must put some sort of sum to the thoughts I have typed out here. This music is not cutting-edge Modern so much as it is a folkish miracle of lyricism, if you will pardon the turn of phrase. When I think of the meteoric rise of Riverdance in decades prior I think of the joy that it gave to my workmate, now alas gone, a step dancer herself in her youth, and how that infectious joy readily contaged me. I listen to the whole sum of that music in the suite and know that there is nothing accidental about its success. Whelan is as sure-handed a Modern nationalist as anybody has been. And yes, there is joy and beauty to this music. It deserves the renown it has gotten for a critical ear does not find it at all musically facile. It is concentric, contentful, and stirring fare for anyone with a folk urge, a Celtic tinge, a Gaelic feeling that needs to be satisfied symphonically. If you are someone towards music as Anthony Bourdain (RIP) was to food, this will open you up! Bravo!