Edinburgh: The call of the pipes

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The Independent Culture
Music Of The Pipes Reid Hall

REGULAR VISITORS to the Edinburgh Festival might be forgiven for developing an allergy to the bagpipes. Traversing the city, one is pursued by the droning of multitudinous busking pipers - often of limited repertoire and even more limited technique. After the umpteenth rendition of "Scotland the Brave", The Music of the Pipes, a magnificent nine-concert survey of the piping traditions of the British Isles, came as a welcome relief. Sampling two of the concerts, it was a pleasure to hear some really expert, accurate and musical playing from a galaxy of illustrious performers.

In Rites of Passage at the austere but magnificent Reid Hall, we were reminded of the overwhelming importance of Gaelic culture in keeping the tradition of the great Highland pipes alive, with a selection of pieces ranging from the arcane piobaireachd to lighter forms based on songs, played in fine style by Angus MacDonald and Duncan MacGillivray. Music celebrating birth, love, and marriage and inexorable death included pieces dating back to the 17th century, and songs interpreted expressively (despite excessive and probably unnecessary amplification) by Margaret Stewart, with Allan MacDonald on the bellows-blown Scottish smallpipes.

"The Old Woman's Lullaby", first sung, then used as the basis for a piobaireachd, reminded us of the close relationship between forms in the oral tradition. Whether a fairly international audience really appreciated the refinements of the piping they heard - the almost inaudibly fast but absolutely essential ornaments, for example - is debatable, but the their response was certainly enthusiastic.

"Both Sides the Tweed", in the more domestic setting of the elegant St Cecilia's Hall, explored piping on both sides of the Border. It featured Iain MacInnes and William Jackson on smallpipes and harp, with some evocatively- named numbers such as "My Love is a Fair-haired Lad", and examples of the brisk regimental quickstep genre. The combination of the two instruments worked well, despite some discrepancies of tuning.

Andy Hunter reminded us of the tradition of singing with the pipes with "The Gallowa' Hills", and Gordon Mooney gave a glimpse of the repertoire of the Northumbrian pipes, another instrument with a unique staccato sound and a surprisingly chromatic range.

The selection was completed by Fin Moore and Will Lamb on Scottish smallpipes and fiddle, demonstrating that the long-established Border tradition is still very much alive and kicking.

To 3 Sept (0131-473 2000)