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Bel Canto
Macmeanmna  SKYECD52

This might on the face of it sound an unpromising proposition, even an unlikely gambit for a new CD by a Scottish singer: to take a contemporary (2001) novel by an American author (Ann Patchett) concerning an opera diva and her audience who are taken hostage by a group of terrorists, transpose its setting from South America to Gaelic Scotland, and compose a “story of songs” – essentially a song-cycle – based on its narrative and its central themes of love, music, identity, language and communication. Bel Canto is not an easy work to get to grips with; yet in the end it casts its own unique spell and proves both rewarding and unexpectedly compelling, although to be fair – and as is the norm with any ambitious project – the fairly wide stylistic range it encompasses can at times be more than a little disconcerting.

To help realise her personal vision of the novel in music, Eilidh has engaged what amounts to a core team of Brian McAlpine (piano), Ged Grimes (bass), Gordon Gunn (fiddle, mandolin) and Christine Hanson (cello), who furnish uniformly elegant and highly accomplished musical settings that ideally complement the soft, plaintive timbre of Eilidh’s voice. Occasionally the overall effect is a touch too plaintive perhaps, with the harsher nuances of the subject matter sidestepped in the gentle settings, and although the booklet helpfully gives both a synopsis and full text for each of the disc’s 13 songs, it’s not always easy for the listener to ascertain the perspective of the singer or correlate intent with final expression. There is, however, a great deal of attractive musical invention within this song-cycle, from the brief, delicate acappella Suidh San Oisean to the charming country-folk of Gentle Kisses, the romantic swaying barroom waltz Faillirinn o ’Ille Ghasta to the mildly jazzy syncopations of Cait An Robh Thu Ghealltaire Ghalid?

A handful of guest vocalists, notably Michael Marra, James Graham and Eddi Reader, impart a distinctive and quite special flavour to songs like You Misunderstand Me and Rèidhphort, while the opening scene-setter (possibly the album’s most “difficult-listening” track) incorporates both a passage of Marra narration and some genuine operatic “bel canto” sung by the acclaimed Scottish mezzo Elizabeth McCormack. This disc will both enchant and stimulate the listener in almost equal measure, if he/she is prepared to invest some time and attention in its music, notwithstanding it’s at times esoteric literary-philosophical intricacies.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 85 of The Living Tradition magazine.