On Sailing To Byzantium singer/songwriter Christine Tobin adds music to the poems of Ireland's much-loved William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). Get this wrong, and an entire nation might well demand answers: get it right and a richly imaginative and beautiful recording is promised. Tobin gets it right.
Tobin's love of Yeats goes back to her teens in Dublin, when her first boyfriend would read her two of the poems: the beautiful "When You Are Old" and the mysterious "The Song Of Wandering Aengus." Sailing To Byzantium originated in Tobin's 2010 performance of Yeats' poems, given at the invitation of the National Library Of Ireland. Her emotional connection to Yeats' words comes across in every linein a career of superb vocal performances, this may well be Tobin's best yet.
Tobin is both a masterful songwriter and a skilful interpreter of other writers' work; her 2010 album with pianist Liam Noble, Tapestry Unravelled (Trail Belle), superbly reworks Carole King's iconic recording. Noble is also a central presence on Sailing To Byzantium, driving the pace of "The Song Of Wandering Aengus," emphasizing the fearful mystery of "The Second Coming." His rhythm playing, in partnership with bassist Dave Whitford, provides a strong foundation from which their fellow players take a variety of fascinating paths.
Each musician seems to intuitively understand Tobin's musical ideas. Kate Shortt's cello adds pathos to "When You Are Old" and heightens the sense of regret in "The Wild Swans At Coole." Phil Robson's playing is graceful and fluid, his solo on "The Fisherman" matching Tobin's voice in its beauty. On "Byzantium" the pair combines on a lovely tune reminiscent of Robert Kirby's arrangements for Nick Drake.
Gabriel Byrne, now better known as the star of Hollywood movies such as The Usual Suspects (1995), was Tobin's teacher at school in Dublin. Byrne accepted Tobin's invitation to read three poems and brings his own gravitas to the proceedings. Tobin gives him space, keeping instrumentation to a minimum. Byrne reads the moving "The Pity Of Love" unaccompanied; on "The Lake Isle Of Innisfree," a poem that longs for the peace of a "bee-loud glade," he's joined by Tobin's lyrical but sparse piano; for "The White Birds" Gareth Lockrane joins him in a flute and voice duet.
Much of the success of this album is down to the way in which Tobin's music serves Yeats' words. The poems are always the primary focus, inspiring the music and the performances. Tobin gets the combination just right, giving emphasis to Yeats' imagery and emotions, highlighting the subtler nuances, and opening the poems up to offer a new experience. She does this so successfully, that it's possible to forgive anyone who asks how Yates has managed to write such beautiful lyrics to Tobin's tunes. There's a timeless quality to the music and words on Sailing To Byzantium: a record that goes, as "The Lake Isle Of Innisfree" puts it, to "the deep heart's core."
When You Are Old; The Lake Isle Of Innisfree; The Song Of Wandering Aengus; The Wild Swans At Coole; The Fisherman; The Pity Of Love; The Second Coming; In Memory Of Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Markievicz; What Then?; Sailing To Byzantium; Byzantium; Long-Legged Fly; The White Birds.
Christine Tobin: vocals, piano (2); Liam Noble: piano; Phil Robson: guitar; Kate Shortt: cello; Dave Whitford: double bass; Gareth Lockrane: flutes (3, 5, 9, 10, 13); Gabriel Byrne: reader (2, 6, 13).
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