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The combined hands of the Hirondelle players, layed out on a wooden table in a circle with their fingers pointing inwards, palms flat.

Hirondelle – Hirondelle, a review

Gavin McNamara discovers Hirondelle - an enchanting fusion of folk, classical, and polyphony, celebrating the unity of music across cultures.

Album cover for the collaborative album by Hirondelle, featuring swallows flying across the sunset sky in a naive painting.
Release Date
31 January 2024
Hirondelle, by Hirondelle
Hirondelle, recorded pre-lockdown, blends Northumbrian alt-folk, classical, and Provençal polyphony, and symbolises unity. Their multicultural album merges English folk with Occitan, celebrating collaboration and respect. A harmonious journey through traditional and new songs, it's an awe-inspiring fusion deserving of recognition.

Those strange lockdown days were incredibly fertile for many musicians. The endless lonely hours, and a bit of Zoom, seemed to unlock rivers of creativity that we’re only just starting to see and hear. Hirondelle were a little different. They recorded this album before the madness, before the distancing. Theirs was one of those albums that got “lost” as we were all forced indoors.

You feel that the restrictions put on Hirondelle must have been tortuous. This self-titled, debut is full of wide-open space, of clear skies and a willingness to roam across them.

Made up of Northumbrian alt-folk sibling duo, The Brothers Gillespie (guitar and vocals), classical group, Trio Mythos, and the groundbreaking Provençal dialect polyphonic trio, Tant Que Li Siam, Hirondelle is the sound of beacons lit on separate hilltops, each throwing light, warmth and comfort in the air, each reminding the other where they are. 

“Hirondelle” is French for “swallow”, and the patterns of flight – of criss-crossing the world – is apt as the English Folk tradition brushes wings with the language of Occitan and gorgeous classical orchestration. This is a murmuration, filling the sky, separate entities becoming one.

The Brothers Gillespie – James and Sam – form the basis of this fusion. They seem to be the catalyst. On ‘Golden One’, their epic, wide-screen folk is to the fore. They are frontier adventurers, calling across canyons, voices harmonising, swelling, becoming full-bodied. All the while, Trio Mythos provide bird-like flutters – violin, viola and cello arcing across the sky, tracing lazy, poetic loops through that canyon. As the two groups mesh together, something magical happens. You start to see the individuals as a whole – a more powerful singularity. 

Hirondelle is made up of traditional folk songs and those written in English and Provençal. ‘Tina’s Song’ is one of the new ones and, like ‘Golden One’, it’s originally from the Brothers’ album, The Fell. Tina Rothery is a Green Party member and an anti-fracking campaigner and the Brothers make her’s a heroic narrative, filled with a vocal honesty and utter sincerity. Again, the harmonies are beautiful but it is Trio Mythos that steal the show. Led by viola player Sophie Renshaw (Scottish Philharmonic Orchestra), the trio set up a slightly off-kilter juxtaposition to the vocal harmony. Violinist Lucy Russell (Fitzwilliam Quartet) and cellist Ruth Philips combine, wheeling off in a slightly different direction, adding an unpredictability to the beauty. The music tilts, slightly, until it straightens to lift the voices yet higher. It’s slow, gentle, contemplative. The sort of song that leaves you staring in wonder, overcome.

The third piece in Hirondelle’s tapestry are Tant Que Li Siam, from Provence. Damien Toumi, Marie-Madeleine Martinet and Mario Leccia bring their glorious polyphonic singing to two songs, both augmented by beautiful orchestration. ‘La Roumanço de Peire d’Aragoun’ has the scent of a relatively polite medieval feast, the three voices raised in Occitan harmony, but ‘Ô Ventour’ is stunning. Cello and violin never dominate the voices – instead, they cushion them, allowing a freedom of movement. The polyphony slowly takes all control, voices overlapping, building until coming somewhere near to a frenzy. Male and female spoken word passages pulse over a deep, deep cello as classical and folk-ish worlds rest together, like a bird’s wings after flight.

Two more compositions by the Gillespie brothers follow. Both ‘Northumberland I’ and ‘II’ have their original home on The Fell and, here, they add yet more poetry. ‘Northumberland I’ echoes the spoken word segments of ‘Ô Ventour’ but the pace is lessened, Trio Mythos more pronounced. ‘Northumberland II’ is more upbeat with whip-crack percussion and soaring violin. It is the moment where Hirondelle, finally, stays airborne.

‘Carolan’s Cup’, the only instrumental on the album, is stately and lovely. Guitar and violin flitting in readiness for the closing track, and highlight, of this delightful album.

There may only be one song from the English tradition on Hirondelle but it’s worth the price of admission alone. ‘I Drew My Ship’ [Roud 402] was collected in the 1890s in North-East England, recorded by Shirley Collins in the 1950s and, subsequently, versions have appeared from June Tabor, Eliza Carthy and Bellowhead, amongst others. It’s a dawn serenade and, in the hands of Hirondelle, it’s a thing of jaw-dropping beauty. For the first time on the album all three groups flock together. Cello drones are joined by the Gillespie’s harmonies, the strings of Mythos begin to mass around the voices, by now both male and female. It is as delicate, as all-pervading, as sea-mist, robbing you of all other senses, forcing you to just listen. The chorus ebbs and swells, swirling into waves and planes. English Folk layered with awe-inspiring classical playing and then, finally, the Occitan voices, echoing the English calls, finding safety, warmth and comfort in their numbers.

Hirondelle is a lovely album, full of mutual love and respect. It is a multicultural gathering, a harmonious congregation and one that deserves not to be “lost” but to find its way home.

Hirondelle is out now and can be purchased from the Brothers Gillespie Bandcamp page.