|Erich Kunzel/Cincinnati Pops Orchestra - A Celtic Spectacular|
|Music Disc Reviews SACD|
|Written by Richard Elen|
|Tuesday, 30 April 2002|
Telarc’s evident trademarks, especially since they started issuing Super Audio CD (SACD) discs, are lush, impressive, beautifully-recorded extravaganzas (check out the other Telarc discs I’ve reviewed to see what I mean), and “A Celtic Spectacular” is all of the above. Featuring the Cincinnati Pops under the baton of Erich Kunzel, this disc also includes a wealth of special Celtic guests, such as the Chieftains, James Galway, tenor John McDermott, classical-turned-Celtic fiddler Liz Knowles and Uilleann piper Kieran O’Hare, plus other luminaries of American Celtic music, such as the Silver Arm.
This album is primarily Irish – or at least Irish-influenced – rather than more broadly Celtic per se, with a traditional tune behind the vast majority of the selections. The tracks are often arranged by Joseph D. Price, of whom I know nothing, but he lends a well-integrated overall feel to the proceedings, which base themselves on the tradition of Irish-themed blockbuster shows “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance” – in other words, generally up-tempo tunes and arrangements you could tap-dance to (if you were suitably accomplished). There are some exceptions, notably those featuring the dulcet tones of Canadian tenor John McDermott, where the material takes on a more wistful air and lays back a bit. But most of the time, you can clear the living room furniture away and hope you don’t have any neighbors downstairs. A lot of thought has gone into the programming of the selections and they all flow from one to the other admirably: this is something that Telarc are excellent at – viz that Cecil B. de Mille-scale “Mormon Tabernacle Christmas” SACD, for example.
The album begins with an electric guitar-led atmospheric piece from “Lord of the Dance” titled “Celtic Dream,” and proceeds on to “Cry of the Celts” from the same show. “O’Farrell’s Welcome to Limerick” follows, and then comes a complex and very impressive mixture of fast and slow arrangements (courtesy of Mr. Price) of “Simple Gifts,” which is doubtless a good deal less Irish than I am: it’s an American Shaker tune, brought to prominence in the US by Aaron Copland and in the UK by English songwriter Sydney Carter, who provided rather more pagan-sounding lyrics as late as 1968.
We then get to one of the more recent, slower and, I am afraid, rather-too-twee-for-me numbers, “A Little Bit of Heaven,” albeit it is sung very well by Mr. McDermott. The song was composed in 1915 by Ernest Ball and became a favorite of legendary Irish tenor John McCormack. This kind of material works for me if the recording is old enough, in this case preferably McCormack from a 78 played on a wind-up gramophone… but I am not the person to appreciate a modern rendition to the full, and the same applies to a couple of later selections, “Galway Bay” and “Danny Boy.” For some reason, with songs like these, I prefer the old arrangements and the old singing style – the sort of thing you find on the Nimbus “Prima Voce” series, with actual old gramophone recordings. But this is merely a personal preference: these numbers fit beautifully into the whole and you are very likely to enjoy them a great deal, with the shift to slower, vocal numbers providing a good counterpoint to the up-tempo pieces. There’s a couple of traditional jigs that turned up in “Titanic,” here arranged very nicely, again by Mr. Price – I am afraid that if you are doing anything very popularly Celtic these days, you are rather obliged to be influenced either by James Horner’s “Titanic” score or by “Riverdance” – which, well done as it is here, I have little trouble with.
There's another “Riverdance”-sourced piece and then we are “Chasing The Fox,” a rather strange and enjoyable little five-tune medley involving the Chieftains and preceded by a nice bit of surround effects recording of the hunt assembling. Evidently you can still do that kind of thing in Ohio.
At this point, we are only halfway through this hour-long album: a really good-value disc, this one. Next up is McDermott’s rendering of “Galway Bay,” preceded by a snippet of Irish lullaby which is probably more recent than ancient, and then we go into a cool Uilleann pipes showcase for Kieran O’Hare, “A Piper Celebration.” There is then a fiddle/guitar duel between Liz Knowles and Ted Karas, “Celtic Angels,” which to my ears sounds as much Canadian as Irish. This is followed by an arrangement of Loreena McKennitt’s hit “The Mummer’s Dance,” which unfortunately does not work all that well for me, as the lead line is fairly monotonous without its words. O’Hare’s performance in another pleasant medley titled “Steps from the Highlands” leads into McDermott’s performance of “Danny Boy,” a song which is surely fairly obligatory for a disc like this. Sir Hubert Parry – he of “Jerusalem” – called the tune, “Londonderry Air,” “The most beautiful tune in the world.” The disc closes with a pair of traditional tunes, “The Last Rose of Summer” and “The Irish Washerwoman,” in familiar arrangements by Leroy Anderson, taken from his 1947 “Irish Suite,” providing a well-chosen close to this lush, delicious album.
In Telarc’s hands – and particularly in the hands of top engineer Michael Bishop, who was at the controls for much of the recording and all the mixing here – the SACD medium really shines. Telarc recordings are almost always topnotch, and this disc is no exception. The recording approach in this case is very much that of an extended stereo front instrumental stage with – actually rather restrained – reverberation at the rear, which suits this kind of performance ideally. Height information is also provided, as on most Telarc discs these days, by putting it on the redundant LFE (Low Frequency Effects) channel, which is not required by modern full-bandwidth digital audio media.
Also, like all Telarc SACDs, this disc is a hybrid multi-channel SACD, containing not only hi-res DSD stereo and surround mixes but also a Red Book CD-compatible layer that you can play in your car or on your CD-WalkPerson.
The orchestra was recorded in Music Hall, Cincinnati, while the Chieftains were captured by the legendary Brian Masterson at the equally famous Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin. James Galway was recorded in New York and John McDermott in Toronto, making the whole effort very much an international venture.
While I have some reservations about some of the material on this disc, don’t let me put you off. It is really intended for a slightly more middle-of-the-road audience than myself, especially as I was brought up on Celtic and early music and tend to prefer the rather smaller traditional arrangements to modern big orchestral interpretations (though this album did nearly change my mind once in a while). That’s a personal foible, and should be ignored. If you enjoyed the music of “Riverdance” and the Celtic bits of “Titanic,” you will find this even more fun, as it is so exquisitely performed and beautiful recorded. Just do me a favor and pop down to your local Celtic music venue one evening, have a pint of Guinness and hear what this kind of music originally sounded like. It’s also really nice.