The Bowhouse Quintet has created a beautifully arranged recording of Irish traditional music that will appeal to both folk and classical audiences. The use of multiple fiddles along with the cello and bass as rhythm section will feel familiar to classical listeners. Originally designed as a studio album, the CD ended up as a live album recorded in a church, whose acoustics echo that of many orchestral halls, adding to the sense of high culture. Folk music fans may have heard some of these tunes played at a session but should enjoy this elegant interpretation of the form. Altan fans should particularly appreciate the music of this quintet.
The Bowhouse Quintet consists of Liam Lewis and Tola Custy on fiddle, Jessie Smith on viola, Clare O’Donaghue on cello and Paul O’Driscoll on double bass, with support on this recording from Michelle O’Brien, Siobhan Peoples, Tommy Peoples and Michael Queally, all on fiddle.
My initial impression of the first set was that it is quite Altan-esque. But I quickly began to appreciate how The Bowhouse Quintet uses the cello and double bass to great effect on this recording, anchoring the fiddles and setting a variety of tones for the various sets. This is a quite different approach to the lower register instruments in most group originating in the folk revival of the ’70s and ’80s, who usually used bouzoukis and guitars as the anchor instruments.
The second track begins with a playful bass and cello introduction, quickly followed by the violins on three lively tunes.
The third track contains two slower tunes by ensemble members O’Driscoll and Custy. The set begins with the viola and cello, creating a slower and somewhat darker mood that picks up with the second number, composed by ensemble member Custy. This set of tunes is really dominated by the lower instruments, creating one of the best numbers on the recording.
The fourth track, called “Down the Hill,” is quite mournful, with a spare arrangement that begins with the cello and a single fiddle and remains dominated by the bass with a minimalist approach to the melody on violin.
I found the beginning of track 5, a quicker version of a great tune called “Connaughtman’s Rambles,” to be a bit shrill – I was unsure whether I liked the slight dissonance among the violins. I then realized this tune had less input from the deeper instruments. I felt the same way about track 7, a tune called “Paddy Fahy’s,” where I found the prominence of the violins to detract slightly, perhaps due to the slight dissonance among the violins. This may be an idiosyncrasy on my part, as I’ve always preferred a sound with strong bass and rhythm elements – fiddle players may have the opposite opinion of these arrangements.
Track 6 begins with another slow but playful number, “Bird in the Eaves,” composed by O’Driscoll, followed by another original by fiddle player Lewis. “The Golden Hashpipe” is appropriately playful. Both numbers have a bouncy feel at least one emphatic flourish in the melody line. Track 8 finds the base and cello combining plucking and short notes for the rhythm, creating a more percussive effect in anchoring the three tunes. I also found track 8 pleasantly reminiscent of Altan’s instrumentals.
The end of the recording is quick and lively, beginning with “Mulhaires No. 9,” which I particularly liked. This set contains tunes made popular by fiddle player Tommy Peoples, who joins the ensemble for this number. The final tune, called “Five Green Bridges,” really does a great job of showcasing the elegance of this arrangement, and the impact of the cello and double bass. O’Driscoll, who arranged most of the tunes, really appreciates the role of the bass and it’s potential for interpreting Irish traditional music. These final three tunes have those heart-lifting melodies associated with Irish traditional music and make a fine counterpoint to the slower numbers from the middle of the concert.
This recording shows the potential of Irish traditional music to rival the elegance of classical composers through great arrangements and the use of instruments generally associated with classical music. Irish music has developed largely as the pastime of people who love to play at home with their families and with their friends and teachers at pubs, but the 20th century has seen a great deal of cross-over and fusion between Irish music and other forms. Of these, the links to classical music may be the least explored, despite the many musicians in various folk ensembles with classical training. This recording does a fabulous job of making the links with orchestral music explicit, and raises the question: what if Irish traditional music had been preserved by an aristocracy instead of as a folk tradition? Well, for sure, lots of pub goers would be a much sadder lot, including this author. But ensembles like The Bowhouse Quintet erase any doubts about the potential for Irish traditional music to rival the sophistication of music with a “high culture” lineage.
Kim suggest you check out Jayme Lynn Blaschke’s review of Altan’s The Best of Altan CD, and her review of Ensemble Galilei’s The Mystic and the Muse CD.