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Donnacha Dennehy: Grá agus Bás
30 Sep 2011

The music of Donnacha Dennehy

Love and Death is the name of one of Woody Allen’s earlier films, one built around parodies of Tolstoy and other Russian 19th century literary giants.

Donnacha Dennehy: Grá agus Bás

Click here for the list of musicians and production staff

Nonesuch 527063-2 [CD]

$14.99  Click to buy

In Celtic, those words serve as the title of a major piece by the relatively young Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy (b. 1970). And that piece — Grá agus Bás — gives its title to the CD containing it and a song cycle set to the poetry of William Butler Yeats, called That the Night Come. Bob Simpson’s booklet essay for the Nonesuch release attributes to the composer the claim that the title piece is “in no sense a Nationalistic statement.” Indeed, despite the Irish folk music that serves as the inspiration for Grá agus Bás and the poetry of one of Ireland’s greatest authors forming the basis of That the Night Come, the Nonesuch CD doesn’t feel like a 21st century Irish travelogue in contemporary music form. Dennehy manages the tricky and admirable feat of creating music that, while definitely showing its influences, presents a strong and interesting personal profile.

The title piece is a very bold statement. About 25 minutes in length, Grá agus Bás features the vocalism of Iarla Ó Lionáird, a man who specializes in sean-nós, “old tradition” singing. This is full-voiced singing, within a rather limited range, in which wavering of pitch colors the sound, offering tints of yearning and eeriness. Dennehy maintains interest over the work’s span by varying the textures in seamless segments. At root, the accompanying Crash Ensemble performs a sort of kaleidoscope of minimalist gestures, but more of John Adams's style than, say, that of Philip Glass. This is to say, there are acerbic statements at times, and more of a subtly shifting static fabric than the endlessly looping arpeggios of Glass.

Nonesuch provides an English translation of the texts for Grá agus Bás (as well as the Yeats’ poems), but perhaps the best way to experience Grá agus Bás is to let the sound wash over one, imaging the changing weather playing across the sort of bleak but beautiful landscape seen in the packaging art.

Dawn Upshaw takes the vocal line in That the Night Come, but Dennehy’s lines bring touches of the sean-nós tradition, and Upshaw manages them very well. As ever, her enunciation is crystal clear, and though her soprano has noticeably darkened, it is still a very attractive presence. The six selections range from just over 3 minutes to about 9, and the Crash Ensemble’s support sometimes features percussion and electronic effects that show Dennehy’s familiarity with the better representatives of pop-rock music of the last two decades. Still, this is unmistakably art music — not aggressively challenging, but evocative and complex.

Without resorting to excessive claims, this is one recording of contemporary music that leaves a listener interested in hearing more from a composer. Donnacha Dennehy may not have intended a “nationalistic statement,” but Ireland has itself a major voice.

Chris Mullins

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