CD Review: BILL WHELAN — RIVERDANCE: A SYMPHONIC SUITE (James Galway, David Brophy and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra)

Post image for CD Review: BILL WHELAN — RIVERDANCE: A SYMPHONIC SUITE (James Galway, David Brophy and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra)

by Jim Allen on May 21, 2018

in CD-DVD,Tours


Mention the name Bill Whelan and you may get a blank stare, even though this Irish composer, arranger and producer (who collaborated with, among others, U2, Kate Bush, and Van Morrison) has been a successful artist since 1970. But mention the word “Riverdance” and eyes will light up. Whelan won a Grammy Award for his music from the show that over 24 million people have seen. Whelan has also written for film, theater, and orchestra, so it seemed natural to take the music from Riverdance and transform it into a suite – in this case removing the traditional Irish instruments used in the show and reconfiguring the voicing for a familiar but new sound. The new work premiered successfully in 2014, performed by the Ulster Orchestra on BBC Radio 3.

So, the seven-minute music created for an interval at the 1997 Eurovision Song Contest has come full circle as an 11-piece 38-minute Symphonic Suite that is an arrangement of dances from the show. Riverdance: A Symphonic Suite is no doubt the bedrock of this album, but the premiere recording is joined by two other recent Whelan works, both three-movement concertos. Linen and Lace, a flute concerto written for, and performed by, Sir James Galway, is a work that musically unites their respective home cities of Belfast and Limerick. Inishlacken, named after a deserted island off the Galway coast, is a double-concerto for classical violin and traditional fiddle, with Helena Wood and Zoë Conway as the soloists.

Under David Brophy’s sensitive, searching conducting, the recording by RTÉ (Raidió Teilifís Éireann) National Symphony Orchestra for its own RTÉ lyric fm label, is positively exquisite. Linen and Lace (run time 22:54) feels like a collection of harmonious, idiosyncratic pieces than a concerto; the connective tissue between these pieces is sometimes silence. But at 77-years-young, Galway is in top form, and there is a galloping spirit in his clean, earnest tone.

Inishlacken is made up of a sprightly allegro movement, an introspective, forthrightly gorgeous movement with duet for the soloists in which you can really hear the difference between violin and fiddle, and a third that is both shadowy and dancelike.

The Symphonic Suite does indeed contain extensively new arrangements, which is denser than the original but with a sweep that is majestic. The orchestra is spotless and sprightly, handling the multifaceted metrical melodies beautifully, and there’s plenty to enjoy. If ever a CD was created to accompany you on those road trips through rolling green hills, this is it. No doubt some of it feels thrust upon us as if we were watching a tourist film about Ireland at a theme park; it’s not very adventurous musically and the use of sugary-sweet harp and propulsive repetitive jigs can become a bit much. Still, the Irish temperament, whether lilting or celebratory, is no doubt transportive.

portrait of Bill Whelan, 2014, by Colin Davidson, from the liner notes

Bill Whelan: Orchestral Works
Riverdance: A Symphonic Suite; Linen and LaceInishlacken
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra; David Brophy, conductor
RTÉ lyric fm | 17 tracks | 78:20
released May 18, 2018
available at Amazon and iTunes

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