Our tradition is buoyed by many riches, not least of which are the "big" sean nós songs, many of which stretch from the 16th century. In recent times Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh has had an increasing interest in delving deep into their essence, and her daring excavation of the iconic Blasket island slow air Port na bPúcaí a few years ago let it speak to a whole new generation.
That felt like a jumping-off point for her latest adventure with Irish Chamber Orchestra. It's an ambitious project: commissioning six composers to make arrangements for songs as diverse as An Chúilfhoinn, Róisín Dubh and Sliabh Geal gCua, and Róisín Reimagined is replete with surprises around every corner. Nic Amhlaoibh's fathoms-deep voice is the perfect anchor for the selection she has chosen, and she has wisely tempered the weightier material with some playful song choices that bring more colour and shade to a collection that risked being overwhelmed by its own heft.
Instead, the rich mix of influences from composers, such as Cormac McCarthy, Linda Buckley and Sam Perkin (composer in residence with Crash Ensemble) have the individual and collective impact of opening up these magnificent songs so that the listener hears them anew. Nic Amhlaoibh's Corca Dhuibhne Irish and effortless phrasing marry beguilingly with Cormac McCarthy's bold jazz-influenced introduction to Sliabh Geal gCua. It has an almost unbearable lightness of being in Linda Buckley's setting of Slán le Máigh, whose arrangements mine deep beneath the pathos that's more usually associated with this iconic song to reveal an even deeper, darker foreboding that's cinematic in scope.
Nic Amhlaoibh and Irish Chamber Orchestra have found the sweetest of spots in which to collaborate, always letting the songs dictate the pace and mood, but opening them up to new horizons under the watchful eyes of these wisely chosen composers, and steered by producer Dónal O'Connor. Echoes of Seán Ó Riada can be heard in the spirit and intent of this collection, not to mention those of Shaun Davey. Their legacies have found fresh purchase in this gathering of songs, scaffolded by some beautiful piping from Mick O'Brien, harmonium, fiddle and violin from Dónal O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy's sinuous piano.
A revelatory collection and a high-water mark for Nic Amhlaoibh, whose never wanted for a spirit of adventure.