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I am always amazed to find there are people with a genuine interest in British traditional music, who are blithely unaware of the Northumbrian Smallpipes*. This small, sweet-toned, bellows-powered bagpipe has been played for the last two centuries and more in the North-East of England (and more recently elsewhere). Rumours of the demise of this tradition have always been exaggerated, but they have been of assistance in attracting devotees with local connections, who maintained the tradition. I suspect that this has contributed significantly to the remarkable growth in interest in the tradition in the last quarter century.

This latter period coincides with Chris Ormston's playing career, and from "young-star" beginnings in competitions (a recurrent phenomenon), he has become widely admired within the world of Northumbrian piping as an exemplar of classic piping style which many recognise, but few have sufficient drive to emulate. We have been waiting eagerly for a recording of Chris to be issued, and now that it has, we are certainly not disappointed. As a stunning combination of piping technique, and a demonstration of well-honed musical taste, it is unsurpassed in the history of recorded Northumbrian piping.

The late 1920s saw an earlier upsurge of interest in piping in Northumberland. In this period, the Northumbrian Pipers' Society was formed, but, perhaps more importantly, Northumbrian smallpipes were recorded for commercial distribution. Of these recordings, Tom Clough's classic recording of 'Holey Ha'penny' has come down to these latter days as a touchstone of technique, demonstrating a control of the instrument beyond that which many pipers seek to achieve. Chris, failing to appreciate that such playing was considered by many to be beyond the ability of ordinary mortals, sought with unwavering focus to emulate, understand and revive the techniques which Tom had taught to many of his pupils in the first half of the twentieth century.

This CD is in no way an academic reconstruction of a long gone art form, rather it brings the smallpipes to life in a way which emphasises the unique attributes of this indigenous instrument. As an exposition of the Clough style of playing, it is without equal. It contains some of the old tunes and sets of variations, which are indelibly associated with the instrument, as well as tunes associated with Billy Pigg, and some of Chris's own compositions. This is not mile-a-minute playing but rather a sparkling, measured approach which allows enough space for the grace notes and runs which are an inherent part of this style. In contrast, for playing slow airs, he uses a very simple style, coaxing from his chanter a sweetness of tone, which makes for compelling listening.

As with many other pipers, Chris is not unaware of other traditions, but when he takes tunes from the Irish tradition, he avoids any pseudo-celtic styles, playing them in a manner which is recognisably "Northumbrian", without hiding their origins. I know that Chris is perfectly able to accomplish any of the techniques which might be presented as modern (freestyle) piping, but his avoidance of such effectively demonstrates the power of classic technique as a means of presenting the inherent capabilities of the instrument.

If cornered, I could criticise some technical aspects of the recording/production on one or two tracks, but these are not sufficient to detract from an overall stunning performance. Whether you are a Northumbrian piper seeking inspiration, a lover of Northumbrian music seeking entertainment, or a musician seeking a definitive and masterly exposition of the instrument's capabilities, this is definitely a must have CD.

Barry Say

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This album was reviewed in Issue 54 of The Living Tradition magazine.