Donnacha Dennehy: The Hunger review – Innovative exploration of the Famine

This ‘docu-cantata’ examines a painful period for Ireland through compelling music

The Hunger
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Artist: Donnacha Dennehy
Genre: Classical
Label: Nonesuch

This "docu-cantata" by Donnacha Dennehy featuring Alarm Will Sound, conductor Alan Pierson, soprano Katherine Manley, and sean nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird explores Ireland's Great Famine, in which at least 1 million people died, and another million emigrated – a painful period which Dennehy approaches in a considered, innovative way.

Innovation is synonymous with Dennehy, who founded Crash Ensemble in 1997, and the success of this work hinges on this approach, which is focused on Asenath Nicholson, an American schoolteacher who travelled throughout Ireland in the 1840s, and who witnessed the suffering during the Famine first-hand. Her book Annals of the Famine in Ireland was the basis for Dennehy's work. Soprano Manley, who takes on the voice of Nicholson, is superb, and with clarity and subtle tone, she recalls a desperate people.

The interplay between Manley and Ó Lionáird, who portrays a Famine victim, lamenting and supplicating heaven, is affecting because they draw the other into their tradition, reaching a beautiful mirroring.

Black Potatoes, Dreadful Winter, I Feared He Would Die, I Have Seen and Handled the Black Bread, and Keening create a unified universe, folding in stark piano melodies, as well as urgent, driving strings that provide an elemental touchstone.

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