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Altramar medieval music ensemble: Reviews

NOTE

This represents a small sampling of excerpts and selected reviews; many more available via Altramar's downloadable electronic presskit.
NOTE (Oct 11, 2006)

Excerpts

“Transporting, magical, from the very first bar . . . Gorgeous vocals (really, they don’t come any better), commanding presence, thoughtful and effective phrasing, masterful playing on a panoply of lovely instruments.”
Sing Out! The Folk Song Magazine (Aug 11, 2006)
“Mesmerizing . . . Altramar performs with a passion that must be heard to be appreciated.”
Rambles: A Cultural Arts Magazine (Aug 11, 2006)
“This is haunting and gorgeous music, performed with a restrained passion.”
Green Man Review (Aug 11, 2006)
“Instrumental virtuosity, perfect ensemble, air-tight scholarship and a tremendous stage presence . . . stunning emotional impact.”
Early Music America (Aug 11, 2006)
“A deeply spiritual vein runs through this work.”
Sorted Magazine (Aug 11, 2006)
“Early music research with a world music sensibility.”
Martin Goldsmith - NPR’s Performance Today (Aug 11, 2006)
“Magnificent work. The music comes off as a vibrant, living thing.”
Earl Sellar - Green Man Review (Aug 11, 2006)
“Medievalists will swoon to Anonymous 4 . . . but they will find a less austere beauty (and probably even greater pleasure) in Nova Stella.”
New Yorker Magazine (Aug 11, 2006)
“The sheer quality of talent . . . was well-nigh irresistible.”
Boston Globe (Aug 11, 2006)
“Talent, creativity, and imagination [and] thoroughness of scholarship. If this isn’t the very definition of Historically-Informed Performance, I don’t know what is.”
Lansing McCloskey - Boston Early Music News (Aug 11, 2006)
“They were spectacular, easily the finest such group I have ever heard. I was moved and exalted and was finally persuaded that a medieval audience would have been likewise.”
Dr. George Greenia, College of William and Mary (Aug 11, 2006)
“Great artists exploring less-traveled areas of the repertoire.”
Albany Metroland (Aug 11, 2006)
“Quite beguiling.”
Laser Disc Gazette (Aug 11, 2006)
“There is a subtle epiphany to this music, a delicate transcendence which is deeply spiritual.”
D.Self - Bloomington Voice (Aug 11, 2006)
“For me the Altramar concert was the absolute high point of the [Boston Early Music] festival.”
EARLYM-L computer mailing list (Aug 11, 2006)
“Performed exquisitely.”
Washington Post (Aug 11, 2006)
“Shirt-sleeve style, musical depth and theatrical flair.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Aug 11, 2006)

Galway to Galicia: The Celtic Shores

The Music
From Galway to Galicia is the third in a magnificent series of three CDs, an unprecedented musical exploration of the Medieval Celtic world. In this program, Altramar starts off in the famed trading port of Galway, Ireland, and ventures down the Atlantic coast to the Galician region of Spain, and on to the legendary "Land of Youth", Tir na N’Og. Here’s what Classics Today.com had to say about the first disc in the series, Crossroads of the Celts: "Exceptional musicianship, exemplary recording values, and uncompromising scholarship, which in Altramar’s case extends even to their specially-designed matched set of instruments."

The Artists
Altramar, in the Occitan language of the troubadours, was the name given to the Near Eastern lands that lay "over the sea"; the lands where Crusade and trade resulted in the rich cultural interchange of East and West. Altramar specializes in music of the Medieval Era, sharing historical repertory in the context of human experience, and evoking the vibrant tapestry of medieval culture. Since 1991, Altramar has presented their unique blend of song and story, drama and rhetoric, voices and instruments to audiences in North America and Europe.

"Through a healthy dose of experimentation and improvisation, the quartet turns texts from early manuscripts into vibrant ensemble pieces." — PULSE! Magazine
Rockian trading (Oct 11, 2006)
Altramar, From Galway to Galicia: The Celtic Shores (Dorian Recordings, 2001)

How do you interpret music written many centuries ago? If you're the medieval music ensemble Altramar, you rely on a combination of musical expertise, scholarship, and love for the music to produce songs in which the culture and atmosphere of the medieval world spring back to life. From Galway to Galicia: The Celtic Shores is a collection that smoothly transports the listener back through the centuries, conjuring up a long-lost era with ease. The essence of a slower, more inwardly focused civilization is brought out in all eight tracks.

Context is essential, especially when the music is so far divorced from the modern era. Altramar provides extensive commentary and discussion in the CD booklet. They cover specific details of each piece, as well as general background for the era and an explanation of the influences that helped create the musical style presented in From Galway to Galicia. Each track is carefully crafted; Altramar's clear skill with the medieval instruments shows throughout the CD. The instruments are all specially designed for the group, showing the importance of the physicality that the instruments themselves bring to the performances. This attention to detail shows in the meticulous quality of the CD; every piece is a work of careful craftsmanship.

From Galway to Galicia excels because Altramar does an outstanding job setting the proper mood. The subtle instrumentation draws out a real sense of the music in its centuries-old context. Their voices serve this task equally well. This effect stands out especially well in the spellbinding "The Last Voyage of St. Brendan". Chris Smith's recitation is a stirring evocation of the 800-year old text. One piece is even more striking; the powerful "En Silvis Caesa". The words are modeled on a Latin rowing song and are attributed to St. Columbanus. Columbanus spent much of his life journeying around Europe founding monasteries. Essentially an a cappella tune (the string accompaniment is barely noticeable), the singing fairly leaps out of the speakers to grab hold of you. Even if you have little (or no) Latin, the powerful pull of the words is unmistakable.

With this album, Altramar attempts to "recapture something of the sound, the impact, and the affect (sic) of these great works of sung poetry." They succeed, recapturing much more than a mere "something". Accompanying the CD are extensive descriptions of all of the pieces. This gives the listener the context and background details to understand the significance of each song and how they identify with the Celtic regions of Western Europe in the Middle Ages. The combined effect of the music, singing/chanting, and background text goes a great way towards the goal Altramar sets forth on their Web site; "sharing historical repertory in the context of human experience, and evoking the vibrant tapestry of medieval culture."


[Eric Eller]
Eric Eller - Green Man Review (Oct 11, 2006)
Altramar, Crossroads of the Celts (Dorian Records, 1998)



Altramar is an early music ensemble based in Indiana. Using only period instruments, the group attempts to evoke long-lost and largely forgotten music of several cultures. This is a noble enterprise indeed: imagine trying to put together a jig-saw puzzle with only 4 pieces and a vague memory of the picture on the box. Early music groups must be part musician, part scholar, and part detective in order to create the music that they perform.

This disc is Altramar's attempt at tackling one of the most daunting and controversial music that is trying to be re-created today: Celtic music from before the 16th century A.D. What an average listener thinks is "Celtic music" is a style only derived roughly 500 years ago (and is still undergoing rapid change and growth); although related, Medieval Celtic music is another thing entirely. Researchers agree that the vocalization of the Dark and Middle Ages on the British Isles was related to the chanting styles common on the Continent, but there has been much debate about how closely related the musical backing is between the Isles and the Continent. Altramar's approach is to balance evenly between "modern" Celtic music and the Northern European Medieval tradition, and the results are fantastic.

The disc opens with "May Song," based on a 9th Century dunnad, or repeating poem. Admist the churning "jig" played on a reproduction of a crwth, or bowed harp, a male and female voice jauntily sing the praises of the Spring sun's warmth. By contrast, "Winter," dating to the 11th Century, is a slow, haunting and pared-down number, with only one male voice wailing words that lament the cold that has come. "Ecce fulget," a long form ballad showcasing the cruit (a plucked harp), contains warm a warm male voice singing in a style similar to Scottish ballad singers today.

This is truly fascinating to hear this music. Altramar's triumph is to interpret and compose their music in such a way to suggest that it is based off original scores, rather than the guess work they are forced to use. "The Lay of the Forge" provides a happy exception: an ancient story of an adventure of the great hero Fionn set to music based on rather contemporary recordings from the Isle of Skye. One of my favourite tracks on this disc is another exception, "Ysgolan," which pairs a 12th Century Welsh poem with music adapted from the Breton tradition. Featuring a single female voice over a minimalist backing, the effect is both spooky and yet still enheartening.

Indeed, if there is any criticism I can give, it's that in sometimes there's too strong of an American accent to the vocalists. An Irish vibrato is definitely not a (presumably) mid-Western American vibrato, and to confuse the two lessens the power of the music.

This CD truly is a magnificent work. The music comes off as a vibrant, living thing, almost with a life of its own; something that surely the original performers and composers would have approved of. Altramar's success with Crossroads Of The Celts begs one to ask for more.

[Big Earl Sellar]
See Big Earl's review of Altramar's Iberian Garden
for a look at their non-Celtic work!
Big Earl Sellar - Green Man Review (Oct 11, 2006)

Crossroads of the Celts

Altramar - Crossroads of the Celts (Dorian Recordings)

As an album, "Crossroads of the Celts" is a more than just the usual CD collection comprising twelve songs - it attempts to represent various forms of expression on different levels. Aurally rich, there is music, poetry, vocal-arrangements and story-telling all intermingled. In a post-Riverdance world, people can be wary of music claiming to embody all things Celtic, while really masking a pseudo "oirishness". Altramar fall between neither stool and sound more like a meeting between Clannad and Dead Can Dance in a some remote monastic setting. The twelve pieces claim to geographically represent Ireland, Wales, Brittany and Scotland, but there is an intrinisically Irish echo in each work.

The vocals on "Crossroads of the Celts" conjure up medieval images and Arthurian scenes. As well as impressive vocal displays, Altramar employ an eclectic range of bygone instruments which makes their music sound hauntingly authentic. Many of the songs are steeped in history and spirituality that the quartet have reworked around old musical manuscripts. There are two songs penned by the group themselves. "Stantipe Smarmore" an a cappella drum-soaked piece from days gone by. "Amra" is an eerie instrumental composition with tinges of the Oriental.

Altramar succeed in bringing to life pieces from the eleventh and twelfth centuries right up to the sixteenth century by using specifically recreated instruments. The overall sound is a symphony of harps, violins, violas and the gittern (an ancestor of the guitar). A deeply spiritual vein runs through this work and it is an unusual and ethereal selection of music evocative of history and folklore.

Sinéad Gleeson
Sinead Gleeson - Sorted Magazine (Oct 11, 2006)
Altramar, Crossroads of the Celts (Dorian Records, 1998)



Altramar is an early music ensemble based in Indiana. Using only period instruments, the group attempts to evoke long-lost and largely forgotten music of several cultures. This is a noble enterprise indeed: imagine trying to put together a jig-saw puzzle with only 4 pieces and a vague memory of the picture on the box. Early music groups must be part musician, part scholar, and part detective in order to create the music that they perform.

This disc is Altramar's attempt at tackling one of the most daunting and controversial music that is trying to be re-created today: Celtic music from before the 16th century A.D. What an average listener thinks is "Celtic music" is a style only derived roughly 500 years ago (and is still undergoing rapid change and growth); although related, Medieval Celtic music is another thing entirely. Researchers agree that the vocalization of the Dark and Middle Ages on the British Isles was related to the chanting styles common on the Continent, but there has been much debate about how closely related the musical backing is between the Isles and the Continent. Altramar's approach is to balance evenly between "modern" Celtic music and the Northern European Medieval tradition, and the results are fantastic.

The disc opens with "May Song," based on a 9th Century dunnad, or repeating poem. Admist the churning "jig" played on a reproduction of a crwth, or bowed harp, a male and female voice jauntily sing the praises of the Spring sun's warmth. By contrast, "Winter," dating to the 11th Century, is a slow, haunting and pared-down number, with only one male voice wailing words that lament the cold that has come. "Ecce fulget," a long form ballad showcasing the cruit (a plucked harp), contains warm a warm male voice singing in a style similar to Scottish ballad singers today.

This is truly fascinating to hear this music. Altramar's triumph is to interpret and compose their music in such a way to suggest that it is based off original scores, rather than the guess work they are forced to use. "The Lay of the Forge" provides a happy exception: an ancient story of an adventure of the great hero Fionn set to music based on rather contemporary recordings from the Isle of Skye. One of my favourite tracks on this disc is another exception, "Ysgolan," which pairs a 12th Century Welsh poem with music adapted from the Breton tradition. Featuring a single female voice over a minimalist backing, the effect is both spooky and yet still enheartening.

Indeed, if there is any criticism I can give, it's that in sometimes there's too strong of an American accent to the vocalists. An Irish vibrato is definitely not a (presumably) mid-Western American vibrato, and to confuse the two lessens the power of the music.

This CD truly is a magnificent work. The music comes off as a vibrant, living thing, almost with a life of its own; something that surely the original performers and composers would have approved of. Altramar's success with Crossroads Of The Celts begs one to ask for more.

[Big Earl Sellar]
See Big Earl's review of Altramar's Iberian Garden
for a look at their non-Celtic work!
Big Earl Sellar - Green Man Review (Oct 11, 2006)

Celtic Wanderers: The Pilgrims' Road

Altramar Medieval Music Ensemble,
Celtic Wanderers: The Pilgrim's Road
(Dorian, 2001)

The Altramar Medieval Music Ensemble has been together since 1991. Celtic Wanderers: The Pilgrim's Road is the band's sixth Dorian CD and the second CD in a Medieval Celtic Trilogy the ensemble has planned. (The first CD in the trilogy is titled Crossroads of the Celts).

Anyone who enjoyed the sound of the monks of Santo Domingo (popularized in the mid-'90s on Chant) and is familiar with the music of Hildegard Von Bingen will truly treasure the artistry that Altramar infuses in this musical tapestry created from 15 tracks. According to the CD liner notes, Altramar "follows the trail of the peregrini, the wandering Irish monks and scholars who, in the early Middle Ages, saved a small corner of civilization."

The four members of the ensemble play several instruments that are medieval reconstructions. Jann Cosart plays the crwth (a bowed lyre) and the vielle (an ancestor of the violin). Angela Mariani has a very powerful voice and also plays the medieval Celtic harp, the cruit (a Celtic lyre) and percussion. Chris Smith contributes his talent on the cruit and the gittern (an ancestor of the guitar). David Stattelman showcases his vocal ability.

My favorite song on the CD is "Puella Christi." The liner notes state that "this tune imagines an Irish stone church, 900 years past, far out in the grey-green fields." I particularly like the vielle. Altramar's beautiful playing is rather mesmerizing in this piece.

Another short, but brilliant track combines Hildegard von Bingen's "O mirum admirandum" with "I Vespers: Antiphons for St. Kilian." The first part honors an Irish bishop who founded a monastery in Germany near Bingen. The Vespers antiphons of the second part is interesting in that the melodies did not survive medieval times intact. Altramar had to rely on some educated guesswork to reconstruct the music. They did a wonderful job.

The majority of the 15 tracks presented on the CD are rather short. In fact, ten selections are less than two and half minutes. The CD as a whole, however, lasts almost an hour thanks to the final track, "Samson dux fortissime" which clocks in at 23 minutes 27 seconds.

Celtic Wanderers: The Pilgrim's Road contains an excellent selection of medieval pieces. Altramar performs with a passion that must be heard to be appreciated. I look forward to their release of their third CD in the Medieval Celtic Trilogy.

[ by Wil Owen ]
Rambles: 10 August 2001
Wil Owen - Rambles Magazine (Oct 11, 2006)

Amazon reviews: "Iberian Garden" vol. 1

Iberian Garden vol. 1

I absolutely adore this set and frequently listen to both, often loud; at first the Arab muwashshah and the one Jewish piyyut were so foreign, I did not know what to make of them. But every time I listened, it was like peeling an onion: layer upon layer of subtle sounds and poetry….This period of Jewish/Muslim/Christian relations was perhaps one of the most fruitful eras in history, and one of rare co-operation. Scientific, religious, philosophical and cultural achievements reached an all to brief apex of harmony. Rarely does one find such an extraordinary portrait of a Golden Age as represented here in the blend of musical styles.

Altramar's "Iberian Garden, volume I" has two things in common with Miles Davis' "The Birth of the Cool": first--the music is so great, so uniquely wonderful, that you never want it to stop; second--the music does stop...and fast. This disc is too short. Not so incredibly short as to get a star knocked off, but short. Either way, get this disc. It is a truly fine recording.

Wow. This recording (and its excellent volume 2) truly shows you the colors of the medieval Iberian world: spiritual, sometimes joyous, full of depth and dark emotions. To commend these performers farther, their recordings of the muwashshahat and a zajal are more convincing as medieval Andalusian music than even the modern Andalusian ensembles in Morocco… Altramar uses documentably medieval Arab instrumentation, and an amazing vocal style and clarity of Arabic pronunciation that perfectly frames and complements this repertoire.

There is a lot to commend about this CD, but the one thing that really stands out in my mind is the quality of the vocals. For as beautiful as these trained voices are, the singers do not make the mistake of overwhelming the "feel" of the music by treating it as an operatic exercise. This is a very interesting CD and, for this listener, there are a few songs here which, alone, justify its purchase.
- Amazon.com (Aug 11, 2006)