Scottish harpist Rachel Newton
Scottish harpist Rachel Newton © Somhairle MacDonald

“It is an old tradition of the Welsh bards,” wrote the Romantic poet Felicia Hemans, “that on the summit of the mountain Cader Idris is an excavation resembling a couch; and that whoever should pass a night in that hollow, would be found in the morning either dead, in a state of frenzy, or endowed with the highest poetical inspiration.” Fragments of her poem “The Rock of Cader Idris” run through the title track of the Scottish harpist Rachel Newton’s new album as the music pulses like a dark Welsh night.

Newton has been so much in demand as a harpist with, variously, The Shee, Spell Songs and Karine Polwart — not to mention her own solo career which includes the excellent Here’s My Heart Come Take It — that it was unlikely lockdown would slow her down. She retreated to her wardrobe to record this new album dealing, broadly, with the experience of women in traditional song.

Besides Hemans, other poets from the 18th and 19th centuries are reworked: Susan Coolidge, Anne Hunter, and the songwriter Carolina Oliphant (Lady Nairne), who preserved her anonymity throughout her life and revealed her authorship only to other women. The melodies to which Newton sets their words dovetail with the older tunes of “Maid By the Shore” and “Two Sisters”: “I’ll be true to my love”, she sings in a murmur on the latter, “if my love will be true to me . . . ” “The Early Morning”, a version of “False-Hearted Knight”, simmers with triumphant viola arpeggios as its heroine outwits a murderer. The waulking song “Chaidil Mi A-Raoir Air An Airigh”, a tale of a woman harassed while longing for her lover, rattles along with a drum rhythm like the slapping of tweed and a repeated Gaelic refrain that rises out of the harp patterns.

The quality of the recording, bright and clean, belies its homemade creation. Contributions from the other musicians, including Lauren MacColl on violin and viola and Mikey Owers on a range of brass instruments — notably an underwash of bass trombone — betray no hint of being patched in after the event. MacColl duets with Newton on the improvised “I Will Go”, her violin phrases answered by Newton’s harp; the counterpoint improvisation, “Life and Light”, sees Owers set out an argument on the flugelhorn that is curtailed just before it reaches a conclusion.

★★★★☆

To the Awe’ is released by Shadowside

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