Isla Ratcliff – The Castalia: Album Review

A refreshingly lively new take on trad. from Isla Ratcliff. Cape Breton influences abound and reinvigorate.

Release date: 19th November 2021

Label: Self-released

Format: CD/Digital (Bandcamp)

Castalia? Me, neither, uncertain whether, thanks wiki, this refers to the Delphic naiad-nymph or to the comet. Or maybe to Hesse’s futuristic utopia of the Glass bead Game. Frankly, any would do, but it is, in fact, the name of the ship that took her forbears to Canada, from Scotland, in 1873. This recording is a vigorous new interpretation of the sometimes overly worthy school of (largely) solo fiddle recordings, and, much as a fan as I am, truly, of such, some fresh eyes and ears are here truly welcome, shifting the occasional cobweb that the sometimes stodgier fare can accumulate. Indeed, I would go further, I would say Ratcliff has here done for the fiddle much as did Brighde Chambeul did for the small pipes, with her album, The Reeling, of 2019. Of course, being young and photogenic, sorry Duncan Chisholm, does no harm….

So who quite is Ratcliff? It seems she is that thing, a child prodigy on her instrument, hot housed in the Suzuki method from the age of 5, then attending City of Edinburgh Music School for her secondary education. A 1st class honours degree, in music, at Oxford and then a masters at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland proved she was no flash in the pan. You might think a glowing career in classical circles might ensue, but, rather, always having a penchant for the traditional music of her country, it is more this direction she has pursued. As part of an international cultural exchange, she had the opportunity to spend time in Canada’s Cape Breton, an island off the northeast coast, soaking up the translocated Celtic Gaelic heritage of that part of the world, seeded courtesy the 19th migrations of her great great great uncle and his family and a legion of others, voluntarily and otherwise. This brought about some reappraisal and recalibration and, ultimately, this recording. Backed with the nuanced cello of Ellen Gira there is also percussion, of sorts, from an unexpected source, of which more later.

The Three Mile Bridge introduces the sort of sound you can expect, fluid fiddling over a plucked backdrop of cello, that instrument playing the part piano might normally provide, ahead of joining in with some bowing, complimenting and complementing the overall thrust. It should have you tapping a foot, if not more, even an involuntary heuuch, depending on the strength of genetic memory. Only In Cape Breton, pre-released as a stand-alone track, follows with that ineffable and hard to define collusion of classical and traditional. This is undoubtedly dance music, whether a stately processional in a TV Sunday night period piece or a sweaty down-home sawdust stomp somewhere considerably less formal. The cello/fiddle interplay as it progresses adds considerable depth to the less embellished foreplay as it opens.

Switching between laments, some self-composed and some from the tradition, and livelier jigs and reels, with 13 tracks, there is too much to give individual credit to, but Lively Steps manages to encompass both styles. The percussion you hear in this and a handful of other tracks, notably and appropriately Tune For Annabelle, is actually a step dancer, the American Annabelle Bugay. Thinking On My Feet is a solo step dance and is adept as any bodhran.

Adam Young’s piano doesn’t appear until near the midway mark and adds gravitas to the more solemn melodies, and vim to the less restrained. Memories Of Cape is a good example of the former. Canadian Cousins, meanwhile, is a showcase for Isla’s own piano playing – as evocative as the captured shore sounds that beckon in this tune. As it becomes a duet with the fiddle, this is perhaps my highlight, the first melody wistful and emotional, seeming to put something in my eye, as it moves into two further segments.

The titles of the tunes give some cause to smile, Kilts On Fire being one example, as well as the wince-inducing Isla Be Home For Christmas, which closes the project. The first is actually more of a slow smoulder, the tweed perhaps damp, until, presumably, the sporran catches, needing some prompt affirmative action. The final track is preceded by another evocative air, Lament For Owen Christy, the only tune neither by Ratcliff or trad.arr., being written by Jim Stewart to commemorate the death of an Irish emigrant on Partridge Island, Canada’s Ellis Island to escapees from the Irish famine and Scottish clearances. A bleak and piercing lament, it recalls the hardships for such arrivals, not over at embarkation, with pizzicato to sustain the closing impact. Which needs the lively reprise of that closer, very much a companion piece to the equivalently bookending beginning salvo.

Here’s Isla (and Annabelle) with Tune For Annabelle:

Isla Ratcliff online: Website / YouTube / Facebook / Instagram

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