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2000-10-08 A tenor is not what it used to be

from the Irish Independent
By GERALDINE NILAND

Young, fit and clean-shaven, the Celtic Tenors have just released their first album, and those who've heard it, Sam Healy included, feel their success is imminent.

THEY are not rampant egotists. They are clean-shaven. They are young. Their weight does not imperil their knee joints. So where do they get off, calling themselves tenors?

I jest. In truth, the three bright faces of the Celtic Tenors have every right to the title. Signed by EMI earlier this year, Matthew Gilsenan, James Nelson and Niall Morris have just released their eponymous début elpee, and judging by the awestruck reactions of those lucky enough to have heard them already (me included), success is imminent.

Their sound, a thoughtful fusion of opera and trad with minimalist arrangements, is instantly ear-catching. The wistful Caledonia, sets a soft, yet rousing tone.

Like a box of chocolates from a stranger, it's sweet and unexpected.

Produced and arranged (with help from the artists) by the redoubtable Frank Gallagher, the record is unapologetically eclectic and may seem, on first hearing, to lack cohesion.

But to presume that this is the result of mere musical ingenuousness is to underestimate the savvy of Gilsenan, Nelson and Morris. They knew the risk involved in choosing such old standards as The Spanish Lady and Danny Boy. They were also wise to the dangers of being perceived as ``popera'' stars, clamouring for a slice of celebrity pie.

They knew all this, but they went for it nonetheless: lucky for us. Their a cappella take on Danny Boy quite literally breathes new life into a tired old standard that has been battered and bruised into submission by bar-room balladeers. It also serves to illustrate the sheer innovation of the Celtic Tenors' sound.

Most groups of tenors sing in unison whether out of deference to a time-honoured tradition or to bloated egos, I cannot say frequently turning beautiful works into bombastic shouting matches. But these boys have chosen an almost barbershop approach beautiful harmonies, intricately wrought and delicately delivered, dance with grace around the melody.

Prior to the creation of the group, Matthew Gilsenan remembers being asked why tenors can't sing normally. Seeing in this naive question the seeds of experimentation, the three singers toyed with the idea of ``breaking the tenor mould'' that is, arriving at a less theatrical, more stylised mid-point between operatic and traditional singing techniques. The result is songs like Remember Me/Recuerdame, gems of understated musicality written especially for the tenors by Phil Coulter.

The voices of the three tenors are distinct (in technical terms, the vibrati are of differing frequencies), but they have clearly gone to great lengths to ensure that the voices meld seamlessly when harmonising. And their personalities are complementary too each is inveterately friendly, but while Nelson is the earnest sort and Gilsenan the playful, Morris hints at mischief. This means exciting live performances, without the remoteness normally associated with classical settings.

These days, with the vacuous guff that passes for pop setting risible standards for musical success, it's a breath of fresh air to see real talent nurtured by a big label. If the Tenors make it big, we'll know there's at least some light at the end of the tunnel.