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SHAUN DAVEY - Voices From The Merry Cemetery

SHAUN DAVEY - Voices From The Merry Cemetery
Tara TARACD4023

The Merry Cemetery of the title is situated in Sǎpânta, Maramures, northern Romania, on the border with Ukraine. It’s a World Heritage site, famous for its tradition of brightly-painted, carved wooden crosses, some of the epitaphs on which provide the lyrics of the 13 specially-composed songs that form the backbone of the Voices From The Merry Cemetery suite, the latest of Shaun Davey’s ambitious musical projects. This is being hailed as a groundbreaking collaboration between the Irish composer and a host of Irish and Romanian musicians, and it is certainly unusual in its sound-world, although you need to be aware that the Romanian element inevitably subsumes the Irish for the most part and the dominating mood is more that of classical art-music fusion than strictly folk; this approach has plentiful delights and virtues of its own of course, according to personal taste).

Interestingly, the actual performances making up the disc were recorded at two different occasions: live at the Sibiu International Theatre Festival in Transylvania in 2009, and at rehearsals in a church at Maramures for a then-impending concert at the Merry Cemetery itself. There are familiar elements throughout which may provide poignant reference points for individual listeners, dependent as much on their own musical experiences and associations as anything else; sporadic glimpses of the whistle or uilleann pipes (Liam O’Flynn) provide most of the specifically Irish flavour, although sometimes it feels that he’s been brought in momentarily to play maddeningly familiar snatches of tunes that are then made to swiftly disappear from the texture like the fabled mischievous leprechaun (although some of the melodies are more believably integrated into the continuing brogue of the settings, as on the closing pair of songs, The Song Of Stan Anuta Delaoe and Vânturile, Valurile (the latter’s lyrics are based on a poem by Mihai Eminescu). These receive some uproarious spontaneous applause from the elsewhere-inaudible audience, and the closing pages of the score contain some sounds and scoring of almost Janaček-ian grandeur.

The rich, deep tonality of an archetypal Slavic choir (here the men’s Choir of Sibiu University’s Theology Faculty), with musicians from the State Philharmonia and organ continuo, serve to impart the songs with a satisfyingly fulsome aura and give the project unity, although the lasting impression of the whole suite is necessarily episodic (as is often the nature of such things). Also appearing are vocal soloist Rita Connolly, guitarist Gerry O’Beirne and solo violinist Cosmin Fidiles. The whole suite grows on one with successive listens, but I recognise its pretensions and musical climate will not be to every reader’s liking and it’s likely to be considered an acquired taste.

David Kidman

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This album was reviewed in Issue 89 of The Living Tradition magazine.