Music reviews: Carlos Núñez | Mìorbhail Nam Beann

Galician piping star Carlos Nunez led a pan-Celtic knees-up with panache, charting the migration of the bagpipes. Picture: Contributed
Galician piping star Carlos Nunez led a pan-Celtic knees-up with panache, charting the migration of the bagpipes. Picture: Contributed
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DID the Highland bagpipe really arrive in Scotland from the Iberian Peninsula via a long-established maritime route, and is its closest cousin the gaita of Galicia in north-west Spain?

Carlos Núñez: The Atlantic Corridor

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Star rating: ****

It’s an engaging hypothesis put forward by bagpipe scholar Hugh Cheape and bolstered by current scholastic thinking that the Celtic “peripheries” were in fact on a busy maritime axis of trade and cultural exchange with Europe.

Galician piping star Carlos Núñez grabbed Cheape’s idea and ran with it delightedly in this performance, charting the seaborne migration of the bagpipe not just along the Celtic fringes of Europe but across the Atlantic to Latin America.

Following a high-energy if somewhat sonically overblown opening set by the Highland band Rura, Núñez led his pan-Celtic knees-up with characteristic panache. It didn’t prove anything too conclusive, but was inarguably great fun, featuring Scots and Irish songs or tunes which contained even passing references to Spain or, in the case of Gaelic singer and harpist Mischa Macpherson, to the Pole Star by which north-bound navigators steered.

As well as a core band of percussionist Xurxo Núñez, guitarist Pancho Álvarez and Irish fiddler Tara Breen, guests included Highland piper Decker Forrest – who also played the Jew’s harp, the Galician word for which is apparently the same as the Gaelic. A trio of Welsh musicians, flagging up their migratory connections with Patagonia, played harp, fiddle and a reconstructed Welsh bagpipe which resembled a gaita. Núñez led a mellifluous Christmas carol that had migrated to Mexico from Galicia, and was later joined by Argentinian accordionist Chango Spasiuk.

The action then switched to Brittany, despatching a chain of audience-participant dancers round the hall in scenes reminiscent of a mid-Seventies Alan Stivell gig.

There were, however, two memorable moments that evoked tangible connections. One was when Karen Matheson, accompanied by husband Donald Shaw on harmonium and piano, gave a spellbinding account of the song An Eala Bhán – “the white swan”, written by the Gaelic bard Dòmhnall Ruadh of Corunna, whose great-grandmother is said to have tended to the dying Sir John Moore after the Battle of Corunna in Galicia in 1809. The other was when Dr Angus MacDonald descended through the auditorium, sounding a piobaireachd commemorating the Battle of Glen Shiel in 1719, when a Galician regiment reinforced the Jacobites. He was joined by Núñez on gaita in a striking and stirring moment of convergence.


Seen on 21.01.15

Mìorbhail Nam Beann

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Star rating: ****

THE ancient, intimate relationship between Gaelic culture and the natural world is nowhere better expressed, or embodied, than in the great 18th-century poem Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain (In Praise of Ben Dorain), by the forester and gamekeeper Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir (Duncan Ban MacIntyre), which inspired this contemporary musical and visual tribute, devised by ex-Blazin’ Fiddler Iain MacFarlane.

Jointly commissioned by Scottish Natural Heritage and last year’s Blas festival, it featured him with three other leading Highland musicians who also love wandering the hills: Ewen Henderson (Mànran/Battlefield Band) on fiddle, pipes and vocals, Breabach singer/guitarist Ewan Robertson and pianist/flautist Hamish Napier.

The music was a mix of MacFarlane’s newly-written tunes, relating to particular aspects of MacIntyre’s poetry, and excerpts from Moladh Beinn Dòbhrain sung to their original melodies, together with a couple of Scots songs praising the Highlands, from the pens of Robert Burns and Jim Malcolm. These were performed against a collage of glorious images depicting Ben Dorain and its environs, richly conveying the sense and emotion of the Gaelic material even for those of us without the language.

The earthy, rugged resonance of Henderson’s singing, in particular, sounded wonderfully of a piece with the theme of man in harmony with nature – while a brief but compelling recitation from the central poem by Brigadier Iain MacFarlane, chieftain of Inverness Gaelic Society, could have been the Earth itself speaking. The musicianship was excellent throughout, while a deft sprinkling of comedy and craic further enriched the show’s unmistakably Highland character.


Seen on 20.01.15

Angus Nicolson Trio/Trio Konogan

Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Star rating: ****

It WAS a night of flickering fingers and shrilling reeds, as the piping of Highland Scotland and Brittany was aired with real panache by seasoned and inspired practitioners.

The Quimper-based Trio Konogan proved a superbly tight-knit combination of piper Konogan An Habask, fiddler Gabriel Faure and guitarist Thibault Niobé. They opened with an almost eastern sounding prelude on fiddle and bombarde – the strident Breton shawm, before settling into a dance rhythm, bombarde and fiddle throwing phrases to each other in characteristic Breton call-and-response style. Their combination of spot-on unison runs and semi-improvised solo breaks was riveting, as An Habask switched with ease between bombarde, the strident little biniou koz – trilling like a bagpipe on helium – whistles and Irish uilleann pipes.

From Skye, the powerful Angus Nicolson Trio demonstrated an assured, straight-ahead delivery, with Nicolson leading on both Highland and Border pipes as well as whistles, and guitarist Murdo Cameron and percussionist Andrew MacPherson keeping up the drive.

Nicolson opened with two solo retreat marches on Highland pipes, his steady delivery suggesting a real grounding in the music. A hymn tune from Uist on whistles was a mellow interlude; otherwise they shifted between nicely paced marches, crisp strathspeys and much fiery up-tempo material, including some of Nicolson’s own, such as the suitably idiosyncratic Lasses that Baffle Us.

Just occasionally, the percussion threatened to hinder rather than help, but for the most part this was exhilaratingly full-tilt pipe music.


Seen on 22.01.15

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra

City Halls, Glasgow

Star rating: ****

EVERY concert should take you on a journey, but this voyage felt especially adventurous, starting in paradise and ending on the bloody fields of Agincourt. And, as with many things in the cultural realm, we have Shakespeare to thank for much of it.

A gentle opener took us by the hand, in the form of Delius’ The Walk to the Paradise Garden. Written to cover a scene change in his early 20th century opera, A Village Romeo and Juliet, the piece may not be the most memorable, but it’s a good way to warm up an audience.

Or, rather, lull it into a false sense of security – because Foulds’ Dynamic Triptych then came along and grabbed us by the scruff of the neck. Exciting almost to the point of menacing, the first movement, ‘Dynamic Mode’, felt like it was carved from a block of ice. ‘Dynamic Timbre’ kissed it better, with guest pianist Ashley Wass caressing the keys he’d earlier pounded. While ‘Dynamic Rhythm’ felt like an exhilarating chase scene around the orchestra.

But the night belonged to Walton, and his multi-layered film score for Henry V. Powerfully driven by conductor Richard Farnes and beautifully supported by Glasgow Chamber Choir and the Choristers of St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, the orchestra took us back to 15th-century France, while the rousing delivery of actor William Houston (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends”) made you want to pick up a weapon and join him.


Seen on 22.01.15