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Private Label RMCD002 

Piano man, Ryan Molloy is joined by uilleann pipers Sheila Friel, Jarlath Henderson, Tara Howley, Padraig McGovern and Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn on this outstanding new CD. Subtitled Traditional Music On Uilleann Pipes And Piano, that’s exactly what this album is. But don’t be fooled; this is no mere collection of duets (though it is). It is exquisite on so many levels: magnificent pipe playing from five of the best; mind-blowing piano playing, as we’ve come to expect from Ryan; and an attention to detail that makes the whole so much greater than the sum of its parts.

OK, here’s where it gets a wee bit technical (and I don’t claim to understand a bit of it!). Pianos and other fixed-pitched instruments are usually tuned using what is called ‘equal temperament’, where octaves are divided into equal steps and the ratio of the frequencies of any adjacent pair of notes is the same. Our western ears have become tuned to this as ‘normal’. However the pipes are different and are tuned in a way where the musical intervals are whole number ratios of frequencies – often called ‘just intonation’. This results in what sounds like clashing notes when instruments like pianos and pipes are played simultaneously. But on this album, Ryan attempts to bring them together by using digital software to adjust each note on the piano to match the notes created on each set of pipes.

There are times here when the use of the alternative way of tuning is obvious; it draws the ears in an intriguing way. It’s not quite what we are used to, so it lingers on the senses differently. But Ryan is the man with the musical Midas touch, and he knows exactly what he is doing. At no time does any of this sound jarring or forced. It’s just damned good music, played by the best.

From the luscious opening chords of the air, Easter Snow, by Padraig, to the wild reels from Jarlath and Sheila later on, every tune is a treat. Tiarnán and Ryan play a bit of Bach too – no bother to either of them. My favourite track is Caoineadh Na dTrí Mhuire, a slow air played by Tara and Ryan – her pipes have a soft, rounded sound, matching the air perfectly, Ryan’s piano is minimal and emotive, and the low notes in particular somehow get right into your soul. Achingly beautiful. Ryan’s use of chord progressions throughout is mesmerising: you think you know where he is going, then he throws in a spine-tingling change that warms everything, and that draws you into the music even further. He really can do no wrong on those ivories.

I can’t recommend this enough. Musically it is sublime, and emotionally it hits all the right notes. It’s definitely in the top three albums I’ve heard this year (and I’ve heard a lot!).

Fiona Heywood


This review appeared in Issue 142 of The Living Tradition magazine