Michael Newman

Laments & Dances: Music from the Folk Traditions

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You couldn't ask for a better collection of musicians for this album of folk-influenced classical music. Michael Newman and Laura Oltman are veteran guitarists; the Turtle Island String Quartet is of course famous (or infamous) for their witty synthesis of classical, jazz, and folk forms; and fiddler Jay Ungar is a legend, in part for his haunting "Ashokan Farewell," which most Americans know as the theme from Ken Burns' The Civil War. Ungar's immortal waltz inevitably appears on this album in a good performance, noteworthy for both the distinctive timbre of Sally Rogers' dulcimer and for its being paired with Howard Bursen's "The Gentle Earl."

The album opens with a world-premiere recording of Arnold Black's "Laments and Dances From the Irish," a superb assimilation of traditional Celtic music to a classical idiom. There are also some song settings by Benjamin Britten and Aaron Copland featuring Sally Rogers, again, this time singing. Their classical formality detracts from their immediate appeal, but they do sound pretty. For extra color, a "world music" element surfaces in a pair of Norwegian traditional songs and a trio of dramatic modern works from the Balkans. One fascinating item is Turlough O'Carolan's 18th century harp song "Planxty Irwin," which, in this arrangement, sounds as if it was the inspiration for "Ashokan Farewell."

Laments and Dances occupies a small niche between folk and classical. For those interested in exploring that space, the album is very much recommended.