Harper Catriona McKay is a musical free spirit who can tackle wholly improvised works and has the ability to take traditional music out to the edge without sacrificing traditional forms and techniques at the altar of experimentation. Indeed, it is the easy intermingling of her fearless adventures with her folk roots that makes Harponium such an enriching, rewarding and uplifting listening experience. Essentially, as its name suggests, a blending of Scottish harp and harmonium, both played by McKay herself, into one new instrument, this is a triumph of brilliant musicality, joyous expression, daring harmonic shifts and moving melodicism. The harp sparkles, jinks and occasionally buzzes like some ancient African instrument while the harmonium brings both subtle and rich colouration, a certain endearingly clunky jauntiness, and a church organ-like grandeur. The sheer virtuosity of the opening Kronos Reel is simply dazzling. Harp Royalty Meets Banjo Czar drives McKay's clear, expansive tunefulness with an almost club music beat, and Irish Harp Hero sings exultantly. BBC Folk Awards take note.
Sunday 12 January 2014, The Glasgow Herald
Harponium is a collection of (mostly) newly self-composed pieces for Catriona’s Scottish harp, of whose seemingly limitless expressive possibilities this musician is here described as a fearless explorer - a tag which even a cursory listen to her latest CD will seem entirely apt. But this is not just a disc of solo harp music, for she augments the signature sound of the harp with the warm tones of the harmonium – hence the title of this project. There’s something of an implication that the two instruments have been somehow magically fused together into one living organism – which is obviously physically impossible (isn’t it?). The rippling melodies of the harp are so delicately upholstered by the gently expressive chords played on the harmonium, the playing style also complementing that of the harp itself and blending into an almost symbiotic whole. The level of invention over the course of the nine tracks is continuously high and the playing invariably stunning – no other word for it – but also definitively subtle, with plentiful delights on quiet display on each play through; rather like viewing an expanse of water and its ever-changing moods and patterns, it’s never quite the same twice.
Catriona’s compositions are clearly inspired by tradition, sometimes more obviously rooted there than others, but they also tend to showcase an adventurousness of spirit and expression that’s only partly born of a desire to exploit the boundaries of the instrument’s sonic and textural capabilities. The disc’s energy-fuelled title track may be the most overtly virtuoso of Catriona’s excursions, but there’s every bit as much virtuosity in matters of phrasing in the altogether more reposeful pieces like Silenced With A Kiss, the gracefully pointed, balleticMaureen’s Waltz and (especially) the heartfelt lament that is Prayer For Ceren. Even so, it’s hardest to resist the Harp Royalty Meets Banjo Czar medley, where Catriona tackles a banjo tune by Séamus Egan with glissandi and all manner of creative flourishes; on this selection, Catriona’s virtuosity brilliantly encompasses both uncannily deft note-spinning and line-weaving and her intensely skilled use of dynamics. The disc’s closing item, the medley of reelsIrish Harp Hero, with its playful syncopations, then makes a breathtakingly agile finale.
The Living Tradition, Feb 2014