By Earle Hitchner
WINTER’S CROSSING, by James Galway and Phil Coulter, RCA Victor 09026-63245-2.
Between 1845 and 1860, almost 2 million Irish immigrated to America, looking for famine relief and work. The heartbreak of their parting, the arduous conditions under which they sailed the Atlantic Ocean, and the uncertainty of what lay ashore for them here in America have occasioned countless songs and instrumentals, and continue to inspire composers today. Witness "Riverdance," whose tenuous narrative covers the same, if more modernized, subject.
Derry-born Phil Coulter, whose "Tranquillity" series of instrumental recordings were hits of Celtic New Age before that term gained marketplace currency, seems to have taken his cue from "Riverdance" to fashion a musical journey from Ireland to America. The majority of ambient-flavored tracks are Coulter’s on "Winter’s Crossing," his second collaboration with James Galway, the Belfast-born flutist who was once a member of the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by the late Herbert Von Karajan.
There’s a mix of legitimate sentiment and lazy sentimentality on this album, with some tracks letting emotion settle in more naturally while others ramrod it home. Despite a bit too much reverb and the sound of rain needlessly bookending the track, Gaoth Dobhair singer Aoife Ní Fhearraigh gives a lustrous rendition of "Cailín na Gruaige Báine," a song composed by Donegal poet Fear Bán.
"The Belfast Polka/Pennsylvania Railroad" is a spirited Coulter medley evoking the tune swapping that went on between Irish immigrants and the stateside residents they encountered. Backed by Dave Bryant’s triangle and Brendan Monaghan’s bones playing, Galway’s piccolo work is flawless and infectious on the first tune, which segues with brawn and briskness into a hoedown-like composition propelled by Coulter’s racing piano runs and the old-timey, sawing-style fiddling of Frank Gallagher.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
"Steal Away," a Coulter song that was a past hit for the Furey Brothers, begins with an unaccompanied, stirringly understated harmony vocal from the Voice Squad (Phil Callery, Fran McPhail, and Gerry Cullen) that leads into instrumental turns successively taken by the Irish Philharmonia, Coulter on piano, and Galway on flute.
"Thousands Are Sailing" is drawn from a letter written in 1866 by an Englishman about a crowd of rural Irish immigrants taking their first anguished step toward America from a rail station in Ballymena. It’s narrated by actor Liam Neeson, who may have been partly attracted to this epistolary excerpt because of its connection to Ballymena, where the actor himself was raised. Whatever its appeal for him, Neeson reads the letter with touching spareness.
That stands in contradistinction, however, to the album’s title cut, which at times gushingly resembles the Vangelis soundtrack for the 1981 film "Chariots of Fire." The synth-simulated cries of seagulls and the tolling of a ship’s bell, along with Coulter’s impression of New Age demiurge (some say demi-scourge) pianist George Winston and an inchoate guitar line from Ivan Gilliland, add up to a less than "Grand Banks Newfoundland."
Also, the opening piano and bodhrán playing of Coulter and Monaghan on "Appalachian Roundup" may strike some listeners as a rather pale imitation of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and Colm Murphy’s superior style of playing on "The Dolphin’s Way" a dozen years ago.
What distinguishes "Winter’s Crossing" are James Galway’s flute and piccolo playing, the guest singing of both Aoife Ní Fhearraigh and the Voice Squad, Liam Neeson’s movingly succinct narrative, and the livelier, leaner cuts penned by Phil Coulter. But when the album slips into maudlin musings and forced or flabby atmospherics, it sadly trades muscle for mist.