Masters of Piobaireachd, Volume 2, Greentrax Recordings
Reviewed by Bill Livingstone
Masters of Piobaireachd Volume 2 presents thoughts, oral instruction augmented by singing, and the playing of Robert Nicol and Robert Brown. It is entirely devoted to piobaireachd, and is handsomely packaged with interesting and instructive notes on the tunes, a brief biography of John MacDonald, and tributes from Andrew Wright and John Hanning. Intelligently edited, it brings together various recordings of the two Bobs made principally in the early 1970s.
The predictable conclusion to a review of this CD is almost certain to be that it’s terrific, enlightening, and indispensable to the piobaireachd enthusiast. So let me get that out of the way—it’s all of the above and more.
Most serious pipers will have heard, or have copies of at least some of the many tape recordings made of the ceol mor playing, singing, and instruction of Nicol and Brown. Indeed, it seems that in Canada at least, several pipers have copies of one or the other of the two Bobs playing or singing most of the piobaireachd repertoire. At last, this series collects and organizes this disparate material, and delivers it in every high quality, unlike the muddy sounding 20th generation duplicates that I have usually heard.
What makes this CD so important, of course, is that it represents the accumulated knowledge of two men who devoted a significant, if not the major portion of their lives to the study of piobaireachd. Their knowledge of the repertoire and understanding of pulse, tempo, and light and shade, was profound, and clearly shows in this CD. Importantly, they were both very good players, and it’s relatively rare that serious competitors have the time or motivation to acquire knowledge of ceol mor in such a broad way. One is simply too busy learning competition repertoire, and set tunes to be a scholar as well.
But, words of caution: these men are steeped in the teaching and playing of John MacDonald and make no apology for the fact that they were trying to impart exactly what they learned from him, intact, without any gloss of their own added.
The world is now small. The travel and geographic restraints of earlier times have disappeared. It’s often been argued that the development of various “schools” of playing arose because of those limitations. The connected world now means instant access to myriad styles, and one hopes that the playing and teaching of other Masters of Piobaireachd can be preserved in a similar series.
Current piobaireachd playing is pretty much homogenous, with nearly everyone sounding basically alike. Unthinking reliance on the oeuvre of the Bobs may heighten this trend. The playing of John MacDonald already is the foundation of most of the current performance style, and some variety would be welcome.
Here one thinks of the tapes of Robert Reid, which are still, I believe, in existence, but not shared with the piping world. Perhaps the producers of Masters of Piobaireached can persuade the custodian of the Reid material to make it available for a similar project.
Indeed, even the collected tapes of Donald MacLeod, another John MacDonald pupil, would provide a different light on his teaching. I know that Donald taught dozens of tunes on tape, by singing and playing, and a similar series would have great appeal.
Pipers love to learn aurally. While many write about the differences between the Cameron style, and that which prevails today, how important it would be to have the subtle differences demonstrated. Recently, for example, David Murray, writing about piobaireachd scholarship, goes so far as to point out how the Balmoral School (i.e. the Bobs) got it “all wrong” with the cadential E’s of “The Battle of the Pass of Crieff.” I’d love to hear that demonstrated, and I think pipers generally feel the same way. This kind of criticism of the stylistic rigors of the Balmoral School is not new to me. The late Andrew MacNeill frequently pointed out that the long E’s in many of the Nicol/Brown interpretations were anathema to him, his teacher Robert Reid, and his teachers before him.
So, while this is a wonderful product, use it in full awareness of the ever-narrower scope for interpretation that the persuasiveness of the John MacDonald school has brought about. Recognize too, that I say this knowing that I myself have been deeply influenced by that very school.
The CD itself is a combination of oral instruction and piobaireachd playing from both men. “The End of the Great Bridge,” “The Lament for Viscount of Dundee,” “The Groat,” “MacLeod of Raasay’s Salute,” “Lament for Colin Roy MacKenzie,” and the seldom heard “Cha Till MacCrimmon” are all presented.
The liner notes include comments by Bob Brown, from a BBC broadcast circa 1958. In them Brown stresses the importance of singing to learn, he says it’s the only way and quality of voice doesn’t matter. I think he may be a bit off on this latter comment. Listen to Brown’s singing of “The Desperate Battle.” His powerful melodic baritone imparts every nuance of feeling that a piper could hope to squeeze from the tune. I know that the importance lies in the learner doing the singing, however badly, to get the gist of the music. But for pure musical communication the well-voiced singer is better equipped than the less gifted, and the CD shows this.
The piping was recorded at various times from 1970 onwards, and some of the technique demonstrates the erosion brought about by time. The pipes are not always perfect, with some sharp or flat notes on the chanter that one doesn’t hear frequently in these times. But the drones hum, the tunes flow with great beauty, and pulse, rhythm, tempo, long long notes, and short notes that are short, all combine to produce beautiful piobaireachd.
The last track on the CD is “The Old Woman’s Lullaby” played by Bob Brown. For me it’s a true gem, and alone justifies the price of the CD. Pipers can only hope that this series will continue, and be expanded.
Bill Livingstone is the greatest competition piper ever from North America. The Pipe Major of the 78th Fraser Highlanders for the last 19 years, he is the only player in history to have won both the Clasp at Inverness and led a band to a World Championship.
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