Iain Mac Harg,
A Celtic Christmas
(Lightening Ridge Music, 2000)

If you want your Christmas carols, and bagpipes too, this is the CD for you! Multi-talented Iain Mac Harg displays his finesse on great Highland bagpipes, Scottish smallpipes, flute, pennywhistle and bodhran, combining contemporary Christmas music with standard pipe repertoire for an interesting mix of music. This CD has the feeling of a Christmas concert as performed by a collection of Celtic musicians, combining music of the season with some of the classic repertoire of the bagpipes. Mac Harg is joined by fellow musicians Joe Egan (percussion), Mary Fran Stafford (harp), Andrew Adams (Highland snare and congas), Arron Flinn (guitar, bass and drums), and Howard Wooden (guitar) to create a diverse and textured Celtic and Christmas offering.

The CD opens with a bold and exciting rendition of "Good King Wenceslas" on Highland pipes, with striking harmonies overdubbed by Mac Harg. After a couple of rounds, the Christmas carol segues into "Irish Jig," a rollicking pipe tune featuring more exciting harmonies. The second track, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/Paddy's Leather Breeches" continues in the same vein, with the marriage of a Christmas song and Celtic tune performed on the Highland pipes, this time without the harmonies.

The Scottish smallpipes take the lead on "Away in a Manger/Rocking the Baby," another Christmas/Celtic coupling, this time with a beautiful harp accompaniment by Stafford. The harp drops out after "Away in a Manager," leaving the pipes to rock the baby to sleep alone. The harp reappears on the next two tracks, however, to accompany the flute on "Greensleeves/What Child Is This?" and "Oh Christmas Tree."

The Scottish smallpipes are the perfect instrument for "We Three Kings," giving just the right exotic flair to this carol. The whistle joins in at the start of "Come All Ye Faithful," lifting the mood from somewhat melancholy to upbeat. "The Little Drummer Boy" works well on pipes with guitar and percussion accompaniment, although the arrangement leaves out a line I am used to hearing in the melody.

Returning to bagpipe repertoire, Mac Harg performs a contemporary pipe tune, "Highland Cathedral," with snare accompaniment, but we return directly to the Christmas theme, still emphasizing percussion accompaniments on "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Who'd have thought that one would fit on pipes?

The CD closes with a few standard pipe tunes, including "Highland Laddie" (with a couple rounds of "Talis Canon tacked on the end) and the oft-requested "Amazing Grace." This version features one verse on solo pipes, followed by a couple of verses with harmony pipes and snare percussion. The encore to this concert is a whistle, pipes, and guitar rendition of "Auld Lang Syne," sending the listeners from the Christmas season into the new year.

This is an enjoyable CD, giving the true feel of a performance setting. Part of this atmosphere is created from the order of tracks, which seems to proceed in a logical progression. Mac Harg brings his guest instrumentalists on for their bit, and then returns to interspersed solos between the guests. There are excellent performances by the instrumentalists, with a few bobbles in coordination between instruments or at transitions to tunes here and there, much as you might expect in a concert setting. Several of the tunes don't get much of a chance to shine, while others go on a bit too long, but the overall effect is quite rewarding.

This is a unique collection of tunes, and deserves a better title than A Celtic Christmas. There are many other "Celtic Christmas" CDs out there, and it would be a shame to get this one confused with any of them. Also, there are no Celtic Christmas carols on the CD. There are Christmas carols, and there are Celtic tunes, but the title doesn't quite seem to fit. I would be more inclined to call it "A Piper's Christmas," indicating that the bagpipes are featured prominently on the recording, and that pipe tunes as well as Christmas tunes are presented in this pleasing piping concert.

[ by Jo Morrison ]