September 30, 2001

Masters of many

Reviewed by Andrew Berthoff

The third CD in the Masters of Piobaireachd series again features the instruction and playing of Robert Brown and Robert Nicol, the famous “Bobs of Balmoral” who, for almost half a decade passed along the teachings of their teacher, John MacDonald of Inverness.

As we’ve come to expect from the previous CDs, Volume Three is also a great resource for those studying piobaireachd. The recording quality, despite being culled from reel-to-reel magnetic tapes made between 1953 and 1972, is surprisingly clear.

Brown and Nicol (and also Donald MacLeod) clearly took John MacDonald’s lead in that they recognized the teaching potential of modern technology. MacDonald’s seminal wax cylinder recording of six tunes in the 1920s is an important link to piobaireachd’s past. Similarly, most of Brown and Nicol’s many students are totally committed to passing along their knowledge, and thus thousands of private and public recordings exist. It’s actually pretty easy for advanced piobaireachd players to find instructional tapes by these pipers, but these are generally fourth, fifth, or worse generation recordings that can sound as if they were made under water. The Masters of Piobaireachd series solves this predicament, and one can be confident that the music has not been slowed or sped up by numerous reduplications.

One is frequently struck by Brown and Nicol’s commentary about the tunes and the way they feel they should be played. The two of them often come across as single-minded when it comes to the presentation of the music. “This is exactly the way John MacDonald played it,” is the sort of tone that continually crops up in their discussions.

Even the liner notes take a rigid approach. The remarks on the recordings of “Lament for Donald Duaghal MacKay” seem very concerned about whether or not a G gracenote is “correct,” which is an interesting comment in itself on where the piping world stands today with piobaireachd.

Regardless, the music itself is compelling and rich. The smoothness of their playing is always contrasted with their readiness and courage to cut notes – a fundamental Balmoral teaching.

Thanks to Greentrax Recordings for taking the initiative with the Masters of Piobaireachd series. But it’s interesting to note that Brown and Nicol, by all accounts, never charged for instruction. They willingly imparted their knowledge to almost anyone committed to learning piobaireachd. With that in mind, one wonders if today they would have mixed feelings about CDs of their instruction being made commercially available. Perhaps it would be fitting if profits from the Masters of Piobaireachd series sales were put in a fund to be dispersed to young pipers for instruction in piobaireachd.


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