SIMON MAYOR – Carolan (Acoustics CDACS 082)

CarolanSimon Mayor’s Carolan album was due for release on March 10 2023, but somehow or other the link found its way into my spam folder, so I’ve only just got to hear it. Carolan is subtitled Fantasias On Themes By Turlough O’Carolan, and if you know both Simon Mayor’s work and O’Carolan’s, that’s probably all you need to know apart, perhaps, from the track list.

Well, most of the tunes here have been circulating in folk clubs for many decades, though not always with the #Carolan hashtag: ‘Princess Royal’, for instance, is often used as a Morris tune (though not usually played so athletically in that context), and some believe that it predates O’Carolan (1670 – 1738), who called it ‘Miss MacDermott’.

I may have an unfair advantage on the Simon Mayor front, though, since I’m pretty sure I first heard him working with Hilary James (who also appears on this album) when I lived in Berkshire in the 1970s. They were darn good then, but their subsequent work both together and as individuals has got better and better. Here, Simon plays violin and viola and guitars as well as his trademark mandolin, mandola and mandocello. (All with alarming dexterity.) Hilary provides vocals, double bass, mandobass (yes, that’s a very large mandolin) and bass guitar, and additional support comes from Florence Petit on violoncello.

Here’s the track list:

  1. Hewlett
  2. Princess Royal
  3. Mrs Sterling
  4. Snowy-Breasted Pearl (lovely vocal from Hilary)
  5. Carolan’s Frolic
  6. Carolan’s Devotion
  7. Sí Beag Sí Mhór (an imaginative reworking incorporating a range of instruments and wordless vocals)
  8. Carolan’s Dream (played on guitar)
  9. Lord Inchiquin
  10. Dolly MacDonough
  11. Carolan’s Concerto
  12. George Brabazon
  13. Katherine O’More
  14. Carolan’s Dream (arranged for string quartet)

It could be said that there’s an element of fantasia in every recording of music written by or attributed to O’Carolan, in that those who notated his music did so without harmonization. Simon has, however, gone beyond “simple harmonization”, noting that “I decided to go beyond simple harmonisation by varying tempos, incorporating changes of key and mode, and using the harmonic sequences as a basis for extemporisation.” Given how adept he is across a wide range of styles, it’s not surprising that he uses this versatility – and the opportunities afforded by multi-tracking for harmonies and swapping round of lead instruments – in full measure.

If you love Irish music, whether your preference is for folk or for something more classical, you really need to give this album a try.

David Harley

Artist’s website:

‘Carolan’s Dream’ – live:

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