Well, I’ve only been a member for week and already I’m suffering from piping sensory overload.
All members of the Piobaireachd Society get access to a special “members only” section of the Society’s website. In this section are the annual proceedings of the Society, publications of the Society, and a daily-expanding list of tunes available for download. I said that I would review a few of the tunes that have been made available, so here is a quick look at a few of the highlights. I won’t go into too much detail, since it’s possible that a few of you reading this are not members – yet. (By the way, if that is the case, and you are serious about the music, I think this really is the time to join. With the now widespread use of the internet amongst piping people, I think we’re going to see an explosion of interest in piobaireachd. It’s early days yet, but the Society’s online resources are going to make it possible to get under the skin of the 20th century history of piobaireachd performance in an unprecedented way.)
I will start with my review of Hugh MacCallum’s performance of the Lament for Donald Ban MacCrimmon. This is a very big tune, and one with which I am very familiar; I have listened to Hugh’s nephew, Willie McCallum’s winning performance of it from the 2005 Glenfiddich Championship almost weekly over the past few years. When I made that recording (from the BBC Radio Scotland Pipeline show), it was preceded by an interview with Willie, in which he describes his approach to the tune and the influence his uncle had on his own interpretation of it.
Being so familiar with Willie’s performance, it was sheer joy to listen to what must have been a benchmark interpretation for him. Hugh’s performance has a lot of forward momentum (which you need, when a tune is 20 minutes long) but holds up briefly in all the right places. It’s actually quite deceptive – Hugh seems to hang on the upper note of each little “triplet” in Variation 1, singling and doubling, so that you think he’s going a lot slower than Willie, but the two men end up timing the whole tune to within 10 seconds of each other. That’s really amazing, for such a huge tune. The time flies by and the tune is over all too quickly.
I would also like to mention the quality of the recording. John Dow, webmaster of the Piobaireachd Society, is confronting the labors of Heracles to clean up these tunes and make them available, but the quality is really excellent. Even some of the other recordings, which are clearly pretty old, are cleaning up nicely thanks to his diligence.
Two other performances that I should also mention are duplicate recordings of the tune “The Marquis of Argyll’s Salute”. This is one of the shorter tunes in the repertoire. It’s a sparkling, loping tune, one that is a huge favorite of mine. Until now, I’ve had access to only an amateur recording (albeit a very good performance), but now there are two recordings of the tune on the Society’s list, one from Jimmy McIntosh and the other from John D. Burgess. I haven’t listened to these yet, but they’re next up!