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“The Carrying Stream”, Ossian (Greentrax, CDTRAX 127).

SOME Scots folk bands bare their chests and open their throats in a musical roar. The                    bouzouki thrashes, the bodrhan thunders and the (Highland) pipes whip the audience into new levels of excitement,

But there is a more delicate strand to Scottish traditional music and Ossian are arguably the best representative of the “chamber” approach. For this reason they may be on the other side of the coin to The Tannahill Weavers, say, but their music is just as uplifting and maybe even lingers in the mind that bit longer.

Only smallpipes would fit into a delicate group texture in which the beautiful harp playing of William Jackson is perhaps the defining sound. And the much respected lain MacInnes contributes his technically immaculate smallpipe playing to several tracks (he can be heard playing whistle on many of the others).

This is not an out-and-out piping record, because most of the numbers consist of Billy Ross’s very fine singing, principally accompanied by harp, guitar and fiddle (the latter played by Stuart Morison). 

The opening track seems to typify Ossian’s restrained approach. “Fisherrow” is a song that I have heard performed as a full throated belter of a number, but this group plays and sings it almost wistfully and regretfully and it is probably all the more effective for that.

The smallpipes make their first entrance in a set beginning with “The Black Crags”. Only the chanter cuts through at first and it is most effective when the accompaniment drops back and the drones emerge on “Pipe Major Joe Wilson” and “The Duke of Hamilton”.

Another pipe set consist of “Blustering Home”, “Flora Macdonald" (on which Iain                       MacInnes is briefly and very effectively left solo) and “David Glen’s Jig”.

The last of the three pipe-led tracks includes “Alick Cameron, Champion Piper”, “Joe McGann’s Fiddle”, “Jenny’s Jig” and “The Glasgow Police Pipers” - this last tune is probably where Ossian come closest to letting their hair down with their discreet equivalent of “Celtic thrash”, bodrhan and all.

Although there will almost undoubtedly have been some balancing of volume levels in the recording studio, Ossian never leave us with the impression that their sound is purely the  product of amplification and the mixing desk.

Smallpipes, harp, guitar and fiddle can live with each other acoustically. This means that Ossian’s music is organic as well as artful. And “The Carrying Stream” (the title track is a harp solo by William Jackson) demonstrates how well Scottish smallpipes can be                              incorporated into a string dominated group of this sort.

William Marshall


The Big Birl - Robert Matheson (Lismor LCDM 5262)

There are three things in life I wish I had done: I wish I had won the National Lottery; I wish I owned a set of smallpipes in Upper D and I wish I had composed ‘Song for Smallpipe’, the opening tune on this CD.

Unfortunately the legalities of copyright forbids me from claiming ownership of the opening tune. And what a tune it is. It will easily become (and I don’t need to be Nostramus to predict) a standard for small pipers, solo Highland pipers, Border pipers and pipe bands.

It is the smallpipes and the contrasting sound of the Highland pipes that makes the CD a joy to listen to. Throw in a handful of talented, versatile, sensitive and experienced musicians and the result is a pot-pouri of piping that ranges from traditional to the more exotic.                    Believe me, I’m talking calypso and seriously heavy metal bagpiping. So serious is the                  piping that musicologists, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin (eat your heart out) fans might agree that the epicentre of heavy metal music should be shifted from Birmingham to Shotts in Lanarkshire. Nuff said. Check it out. Just listen to those power chords in sync with the pipes on ‘Desert Storm’ track eleven. Respect to the man.

There are so many other good tunes and arrangements (28 tunes on 14 tracks) on this CD that require comment but lack of time and space means I can only pass judgement on a few. So here goes.

Track three, the ‘Big Birl’ is the title of the CD. The pipes are so tastefully lifted by the                  accompanying strings and syncopated synchs that this number would not be amiss gracing the boards of any classical concert hall in this Country or any other. 

Track four, the ‘Minuette’ is even more classically orientated. Perhaps a little less staccato by the string quartet would have made this flow more.

Track six, the ‘Breton Air’ and ‘Long Island Jig’: Gems. The break from the air to the jig is a break to die for. And just listen to the last bar of each part of the jig. The gracings are hammered out like hard crans on an Irish pipe.

Track eight, the ‘Calypso’. Initially I thought this was a bit OTT, but the steel pans grow on you the more you listen. If you are addicted to limbo dancing don’t play this track.

Track 14 ‘The Bells of Dunblane’. A beautifully crafted tune but I feel the accompaniment was too light and bouncy and that emotionally it only required a solo piper.

Just a few other ‘do differentlys’. I would re-consider having the snare drum on most of the tracks. I tend to agree with Evelyn Glennie (The Piping Centre “Notes” No. 2 Autumn 1997) that the pitch of the modem snare is too high. Perhaps the inclusion of a Basle street drum would have been a happy medium. After all, Swiss rudiments form the basics of most pipe band drumming these days.

I’m left wondering what is next for Robert Matheson? Extra keyed notes on the GBH?                 Border pipes and voice or more Mediterranean and Eastern bloc odd time signatures played at breathtaking speeds while the chanter is immersed in water? I await the outcome with bated breath, bellows and Border chanter.

Still, overall a tremendous CD that demonstrates the verve, skill and musicality of Robert Matheson - a man who is not afraid to push his piping and his considerable reputation to the limit.

Jim Fraser.