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BRIGHT YOUNG FOLK REVIEW by Patrick Rose August 2012
Contours of Cairngorm is an exploration of traditional Scottish music, as played by Mhairi Hall and her trio, Patsy Reid and the Edinburgh Quartet.  The album was recorded live at Celtic Connections 2011, with a selection of traiditional and self-penned tunes, all arranged by Mhairi and Patsy for the performers.  It's also quite nice to listen to, that's alright then.
Mhairi's skill at playing piano is on show to a great degree - she's perfectly comfortable playing the quick pieces with crazy rhythms, but also playing a nice accompaniment for Patsy and the rest on the quieter and slower tracks.
Stand out tracks include the album's finale Cairngorm, which has one of the most fluid key and tune changes that you'll hear for a while, completely avoiding any hint of corniness or 'boyband'.  The World's Gone Over Me Now, is also very fine, but with some cross rhythms that can throw the listener.
The slower airs take on a more lounge-style jazz affair, which is a welcome change of pace from the fast pieces.  It would be nice for there to be a few more fast pieces, since they seem to be few and far between, but the slower ones do seem to be where Patsy Reid comes to the fore.
It's difficult to fault this album.  As with any, there will be tunes that you don't like as much as others, but there is nothing here that is in the least substandard.  There's little niggling things - becuase the whole album is one long set, with each piece segueing into the next, some of the transitions get a bit samey.  The constant use of strings playing a variation of the same rhythm can get a bit dull after a while.
But to be honest, that's being petty for the sake of it - the album is wonderful.  It's perfect for times when you want some music that you don't need to focus on completely to enjoy, but at the same time focusing on it wholehearedly will leave you enjoying every second of it.
Some things are just exciting to hear.  Mhairi Hall's piano playing and arranging is one of them.  the news that Mhairi and Patsy will be performing together again to bridge the gap between traditional and classical musicians is even more so. 

Born and raised in Aviemore, pianist Mhairi Hall is regarded as one of Scotland’s most creative exponents of that humble instrument. In 2009, she released her debut CDCairngorm, on which she was accompanied by Michael Bryan (acoustic guitar) and Fraser Stone (drum kit) in scintillating arrangements of traditional tunes and original compositions from the region. Contours Of Cairngorm, the conscious follow-up, is an even more ambitious development, being a half-hour-long through-composed suite of instrumental music developed from the Trio’s Cairngorm music, using a classical approach to its performance and thus uniting the two genres and their musicians. A completely new dimension is brought to the music by adding a fresh texture, that of bowed string instruments, to the scoring, bringing on board accomplished young Perthshire fiddle/viola player Patsy Reid and the acclaimed Edinburgh Quartet.

The eight pieces comprising Contours Of Cairngorm are based on traditional melodies from the area of Badenoch and Strathspey (which now encompasses a large part of the Cairngorms National Park, taking in, naturally, the mountain An Càrn Gorm itself). They’re played continuously, without any breaks between movements, and the effect is rather like that of a tumbling mountain stream of invention that cascades along and carries the listener with its flow. Although it’s not strictly “programme music” as such, it does have a pictorial, descriptive element, which the listener can either take on that level or else just revel in the delightful tunes and exhilarating arrangements. (It may be classical-style folk music, but it doesn’t demand serious concentration or any degree of “academic” musical knowledge for its appreciation.)

Amongst the work’s plethora of delectable experiences, I might single out the opening sequence when Sunrise rushes headlong into The World’s Gone Over Me Now, and the ensuing parade of contrasted moods that makes up A Good Winter, after which the title piece forms a reflective epicentre. Also the creeping syncopated rhythms of the strathspey Craig Ellachie, then naturally the suite’s bustling finale bringing the house down with its rhythmic energy… For this is a live recording, drawn from the work’s debut performance, at The Grand City Halls in Glasgow as part of Celtic Connections 2011, and there was an invigorating “frisson of the moment” in the music-making on this occasion, which is certainly conveyed in Dónal Lunny’s cleanly managed transfer of the source tape. The musicianship is of course first-rate; Patsy gained quite a name for herself with Breabach (though she is no longer with them), while Mhairi is one of the scene’s most in-demand session musicians (she’s worked with Patsy before too, of course, on 2008’s Bridging The Gap project). Patsy’s special expressive skills, whether in slower or faster mode, are a known quantity, while her own inventiveness dovetails admirably with the lazy late-night-lounge feel of the guitar and drum parts (especially on the strathspeys).

There are the folk purists who would usually shy away from any treatments involving the piano, taking the view that the drawing-room is not the ideal milieu for traditional music; to them I say give this recording a chance, for you’ll likely find yourself won over by Mhairi’s wonderfully fluid technique, often jazzy cross-rhythms and quietly introspective expressiveness.

David Kidman 

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