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]