Prom 27: Folk Music around Britain and Ireland, Royal Albert Hall

From a Welsh sea-shanty to Scots Gaelic mouth music and a Northumbrian-dialect lament for a cow, Prom 27 presented a diverse programme of British and Irish folk music. Though billed as a “celebration of the tradition, evolution and reinvention of folk music in the 21st century”, adaptation was favoured over authenticity with most performances accompanied by Stephen Bell’s BBC Concert Orchestra.

Often this orchestral ornamentation diminished rather than elevated the experience. Initially the BBCO ceremoniously adorned co-compère Sam Lee’s narrative of a lover walking down the aisle with another man: flurrying violins imitating the chiming of church bells. Yet the complex mood of Lee’s original was soon sentimentalised – his storytelling, plaintive phrasing and detailed vibrato buried by an over-earnest waltz. Fellow compère Julie Fowlis suffered a similarly insensitive treatment, her soft Gaelic glottals muffled. Meanwhile Northern Irishman Jarlath Henderson’s uptempo ayre and dexterous uilleann pipe-work was undermined by the strange intrusion of the James Bond theme.

Welsh trio ALAW best harnessed the orchestra’s power, their driving rhythmic thrums punctuated by plucked violins, their darkly dramatic Balkan-inflected melodies amplified in majesty. Likewise, clog-dancing Mercury Prize nominees The Unthanks exploited the soaring force of the orchestra’s brass section for an exultant rendition of the title track from Mount the Air, winner of best album at the 2016 BBC Folk Awards.

Yet The Unthanks’ music was better complemented by minimal orchestral interference. The BBCO gently countered “Gan to the Kye”’s eerie intensity with romantic relief, while a single-note harmonium drone was the sole accompaniment to the counting rhyme “Magpie”, the musical centrepiece of BBC 4 comedy The Detectorists. The result was haunting: the Tyneside sisters’ bewitching harmonies swirling, melding, unwinding. Folk’s quiet grandeur would be best celebrated without the orchestral pomp.


Featured image: Mark Allan.

Sam Taylor is an arts journalist who recently graduated with an English degree from UCL. He writes film and music reviews for the Financial Times, conducts interviews for The Cusp and edits London Student’s Review section. He has also been published by Jazzwise and The Independent and plays lead guitar in alt-rock band Where’s John?

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