Review: Edinburgh International Harp Festival

Edinburgh International Harp Festival. Picture: Contributed

Edinburgh International Harp Festival. Picture: Contributed

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WITH its vaulted ceiling and oak-panelled walls, the grand Memorial Hall at Merchiston Castle School provided a suitably historic setting for the Edinburgh International Harp Festival’s Hall of the Chieftain evening.

Edinburgh International Harp Festival: Hall of the Chieftain - Merchiston Castle School

***

The concept was simple, and for the most part highly illuminating: to provide some historical context for a set of Scottish songs, airs and instrumental pieces as they might have been performed for clan rulers in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Some of the music was far more ancient than that, though – a Gaelic song given a rather faltering performance by Christine Primrose came from the late medieval period, and is thought to date back to the third century, while the epic ballad Greysteil would have been sung to King James IV in 1497. It was one of the evening’s highlights: Steve Byrne delivered it (well, some of it – there are 3,000 lines) with strength and agility on voice and mandolin, and its archaic-sounding repetitions soon became gloriously hypnotic.

There was quite a lot of explanation, and sometimes a bit too much emphasis on origin and musical variation when the pieces’ functions within the chieftain castle proved far more fascinating. Alison Kinnaird’s fragile lullaby, for example, which she delivered with exquisite sensitivity, would have lulled the household to sleep. And who could have imagined itinerant labourers dressed like a pantomime cow singing the concert’s rousing ploughman’s song – given a gutsy performance by Byrne, Mary Macmaster and Patsy Seddon – to persuade the chieftain to give them work? Definitely an evening of unexpected insights.

Seen on 05.04.14

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