Fifty Essential Folk Albums : #1 : Mhairi Hall : AirsRelease : 31 January 2020 : Strath Records
When masterly Scottish folk musician/composer Mike Vass recently marked Airs out as his favourite album of the year so far, it was an outstanding choice.
Mhairi Hall is a pianist - Airs is her first solo album, following two previous releases with a trio, Cairngorm and Contours of Cairngorm. It is a revelation, an understated joy, mixing six traditional Scottish slow airs with three original compositions.
Mhairi recorded the pieces on a Model D Steinway Concert Grand Piano in 2018 at Crear 'Space to Create', Argyll, in front of a window framing the Hebridean Island of Jura.
The setting, with all its immediate energy from nature and landscape, must have contributed to an album that is graceful, rich in sonic detail and rooted. It is as if the wildness of the outside world shepherded a transcendent performance from the musician in the studio.
Still, there is a tranquillity to the album that belies the will of the stormy weather that punctuated the recording sessions.
Every moment of Airs demands meditative attention, but four pieces stand just proud from the whole.
Composed by Mhairi, A Peak Apart opens the set - an enchanting piano melody taking life over ebbing waves of sound from a harmonium.
Then, from the traditional arrangements that follow, three are particularly striking.
St Kilda offers a soul-stirring highlight, as a melody from a Gaelic song (a surviving cultural fragment from the archipelago abandoned in 1930 after two thousand years of habitation) is teased by the sound of the sea.
Aonghas Grant's mournful fiddle details the lamenting Sìleas, a piece adapted from the Gaelic Do Dh'Arm Righ Sheumais, which was originally written by Sìleas na Ceapaich, a Jacobite supporting poet and daughter of a clan chief in a turbulent period of Scottish history.Well known and worn, The Parting Glass, dedicated by Mhairi to former teacher Irish pianist Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (who died after the album was recorded), closes the proceedings - and is a moving sketch of melancholy and sadness.
With further ambition for its reach, Hall collaborated with landscape artist Beth Robertson Fiddes on the project, who created stunning mixed media paintings (see example above) in parallel to the music.
Other instruments, singing and ambient sounds add colour, but Mhairi's piano playing is the central emotional core of each piece. Airs is a beautiful, absorbing set of recordings, the music played as if utterly heartfelt - you can buy a copy (CD or DL) here.