Kathryn Tickell & Ensemble Mystical’s Ensemble Mystical

Naomi de Bruyn penned this review.

I was looking forward to reviewing this CD with an anticipation I usually reserve for live gigs. The reason — a carynx is actually played on it! And I’ve wanted to hear this elusive instrument ever since I was told how wild and almost frightening it sounds. Rather like a banshee’s wail, only deeper, it makes the hair stand up on the back of the neck rather nicely. The carynx is a 2000-year-old Celtic war horn, and if there’s any Celtic in you, you’ll feel the call. I swear it’s a genetic thing, really. This particular carynx is extremely special, for according to the liner notes, it is the only playable one in existence. It is made of bronze, and comes complete with a wild boar’s head, with gaping mouth and lolling tongue. The craftsmanship is just incredible, and the sound which comes forth is indeed haunting. And if one were a foe, it would give pause for thought, so chilling is its call.

For those of you not familiar with Kathryn Tickell, she is an ultimate listening delight. Kathryn is an accomplished piper and fiddler. She comes from Northumberland, which is one of England’s largest counties, and has put out a number of CDs. Kathryn actually picked up the Northumberland pipes at the age of nine for the first time, and I’m happy to say she didn’t put them back down but kept at it. Kathryn has appeared on four of Sting’s albums, including Fields of Gold. She has also worked with the likes of Maddy Prior, Nick Holland, and Troy Donockley.

Ensemble Mystical is a journey, from the new original pieces to the oldest of the traditional airs. There is magic on this disc, the magic of incredible talents joined with one another and playing music which weaves about the soul like sunlit vines, complete with the occasional shadows within which to delve. This disc is an experience on many levels, not just for the ears. It calls forth bubbling joy, tears of anguish, fear, and hope.

Joining Kathryn for the “journey” is Mary Macmaster (harp, vocals), Ron Shaw (cello), Julian Sutton (melodeon), John Kenny (trombone, sackbut, alphorn, recorder, carynx), and of course Kathryn Tickell herself (Northumbrian pipes, fiddle, vocals), and also joining them are Allan Wood (vocals), and Donald Hay (percussion). Together, this is a very heady mix!

“Border Widow’s Lament” is a touching, although very short, ballad from the Borders. It is a song of grief, and it really pulls on the heart. The melody is dark and painful, and Mary’s vocals hold all the anguish a woman could feel in that predicament. “He slew my knight/I watched his body night and day/I digged a grave a laid him in … ” You cannot listen to this and remain without emotion.

My favourite, perhaps because of the carynx, is “The Burning Babe.” According to the liner notes, the words are supplied by the English poet and martyr Robert Southwell (1561-1595). Mary supplies the main vocals, and Kathryn the additional vocals. Their voices twine about one another like living things, ending all too quickly.

There are two versions of “Corn Fiddler,” and with good reason. In the first version it is a song; Kathryn supplies the vocals. According to the liner notes, Northumbrian poet Allan Wood wrote this as “a lilt to keep step with while sowing the land with seed.” A corn fiddle was an old agricultural device for sowing seed and grain. It was so-called due to the motion one had to use to work it, somewhat similar to that of drawing a bow over the strings of a fiddle. In the second version, the words are spoken by Allan Wood, to the accompaniment of fiddles. This was done to preserve the dialect poetry which is a strong and living tradition in Northumberland, and Kathryn and Mary both felt they could not do justice to the Coquetdale accent. Both versions are lovely, but I prefer the second for it seems to evoke more imagery.

This is going to be a prized CD in my personal collection, to be listened to again and again, for Kathryn Tickell is a magical musician who will take me on journey after journey with her talent.

(Park Records, 2000)

About Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don’t always.

It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we’ve done down the years.