Seán Ó Riada: Port na bPúcaí

Port na bPúcaí
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Artist: Seán Ó Riada
Genre: Traditional
Label: Gael Linn

Completists will savour many facets of Seán Ó Riada’s musical genius in this surprise collection of previously unreleased archive keyboard recordings.

So many classical composers drew deep from the well of folk music (Dvorák and Beethoven, just for starters), and Ó Riada pursued a similarly unfettered path in his approach to our traditional repertoire.

Listening to these keyboard recordings (some of them deliciously skeletal) is akin to burrowing deep beneath the more commonly held perception of Ó Riada: far from the textured arrangements of Ceoltóirí Chualann. In particular, the opening three tracks are taken from a performance in Trinity College in May 1971, just five months before his untimely death.

There's an elegiac quality to Ó Riada's reading of An Chúilfhoinn, which strikes a balance between tentative and quietly authoritative, while the bare piano on the opening Do Bhí Bean Uasal reveals the full potential of the melody line, a song more usually associated with the robust vocals of Seán Ó Sé.

The standout of this remarkable collection is the title tune, Port na bPúcaí (Tune of the Fairies), a slow air thought to have originated on the Blasket Island of Inishvickillaun (though some doubt has since been cast on its supposedly romantic origins). Ó Riada navigates a course in between and under the minor chords of the tune. It's here that he renders all classifications redundant: neither traditional, nor classical, the music is filtered to its purest form, thanks to the freshness and modernity of his thinking.

This and nine other tunes were recorded in March 1971 in UCD, in what is thought to have been Ó Riada’s final public performance. The inclusion of short pieces of incidental music recorded for a commemorative 1916 album, with Ó Riada at his beloved harpsichord, are less intriguing, possibly due to their brevity.

Still, Port na bPúcaí is a treasure trove: an unveiling of a lesser-understood aspect of this musician, composer, arranger and man on a mission to reclaim our own music – and how he did, with a chutzpah that was alien to the times.

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about traditional music and the wider arts