Mary McCarthy - In Praise of Uist - Molaidh Uist

Mary McCarthy
In Praise of Uist - Molaidh Uist


The piano has something of a complex relationship with Scottish traditional music and its relationship with the Gaelic tradition is, historically, even more awkward. From the Edwardian period onwards, the instrument's reputation became more notorious than sonorous, guilty by association with the Drawing Room Classicisms inherent in such volumes as 'Songs of the Hebrides' arranged for voice and pianoforte by Marjory Kennedy Fraser and Kenneth Macleod. Over the years, there have been exceptions to the rule, such as the free-wheeling, extempore accompaniment style of Major Morrison (notably with the traditional singer Seonach Niccoinich), but not many and one of particular merit and relevance to this new CD was Margaret Fay Shaw, song collector, folklorist and pianist, and the source of the first five songs on this CD.

In the modern era, the situation has improved but now there lingers a new tendency towards the overly sweet and the over played. Too often, as well, the familiarity of some pianists with the rhythmic tradition of the piano in Scottish dance music brings unnecessary weight to their arrangements, akin to watching elephants ice dance. All that said, time is certainly a healer, but the past remains an albatross on the back of any pianist who is brave enough to venture into the realms of solo performances (and recordings) of Gaelic and Irish traditional melodies. Unlike the fiddle, the flute or the pipes the instrument has no sustained regional traditions on which to draw - just a family album stuffed with memories of a convict grandfather.

Margaret Fay Shaw, as mentioned above, was a notable exception. She played the piano with a sparse, understated freedom and emotion, eschewing the heavy rhythmic and harmonic arrangements of many of her pianistic contemporaries and enabling the beauty of the melodies in the Gaelic tradition to find breath and space on the keyboard - under her hands, the songs came complete with the melismatic movements inherent in the sung tradition and the rhythm floated across the keys rather than being nailed to the floor.

The same strengths are very evident in the work of Mary McCarthy, teacher and mentor at RSAMD. This is a CD full of elegant music softly played with emotion and surety, and an object lesson for any pianist to have faith in the cut-glass sonority of their instrument. Over the 25 tracks on this CD, McCarthy beguiles with understatement and glistens with melodic clarity. The harmony is at times compound but never over-played showing no need to force the vernacular. As such, this is the only recent solo piano recording of the Gaelic and Irish traditions that I can recommend without hesitation.

Peter Urpeth.

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This album was reviewed in Issue 68 of The Living Tradition magazine.