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Beg ar Viñs
Keltia Musique (

This stunning recording by the Breton quintet Skaliero, or Stairs, builds on pipe organ and bombarde collaborations such as those of André Le Meut and Hervé Rivière, familiar in Breton music, but challengingly medieval to other ears. Skaliero adds the glistening harp of Anne Le Signor, the lilting accordéon of Samuel Le Féon, and the strong, warbling alto vocal of Marthe Vassallo, achieving a unique blend of tones and moods. The shrill, piercing purity of Daniel Le Féon's bombarde, a medieval double-reed instrument akin to the oboe, adds a heavenward aspiration to the dense drama of Jean-Michel Mansano's pipe organ. Vassallo's Breton vocals are unusually clear, each note and phoneme articulate, and benefit from a subtle hollow nasality.

In "Retour de Guerre," light yet ominous pipe organ arpeggios introduce a slow, regal processional, organ adding drama to piercing bombarde, the delicate rhythm emphasized by a harp solo on the same melody, the whole an odd conflation of majesty and encroaching sadness. Vassallo's vocal trades verses with the bombarde on "Disput Etre ar Verc'h Hag ar Vamm," later joined by pipe organ in an overwhelming and suffusing ascension right out of mortal ken. Lighter fare follows in "Mazurkas," the first a quick, lilting waltz, harp backing bombarde, followed by accordéon and bombarde bouncing along with the harp. "Er Voraerion" presents a slow, liturgical hymn, pipe organ heavy on bass, bombarde so sympathetic it might be a special stop on the keyboard.

Vassallo's vocal is featured on "Les Questionnements de la Chanteuse," a pair of brief a cappella contest rounds, pretty and touching for their competitive origins, and on "Peñse ar Jentilez," a slow, mournful recounting of a drowning tragedy, where it fronts the harp, even mastering the haunting, atonality of a harp and bombarde fugue in the center for unique if troubling effect. In "Distro ar Martolod / Marche," a wonderfully high and warbling bombarde is set against a monotonic drone, reminiscent of biniou, or Breton bagpipe, weaving around Vassallo's vocal, evolving from a mournful lament into a tripping, fading harp march. The record ends on high spirits with "Ma c'Halonig a zo Diaes," light, bouncy vocal and harp, deep reverb bombarde sounding like a hunting horn, finally descending into humorous chaos with a circus organ; Vassallo gamely tries to hold the whole thing together, but finally even the ethereal harp goes sideshow crazy.

Beg ar Viñs is an impressive if challenging musical accomplishment, a surprisingly successful and pleasing mix of disparate musical tones and textures, with a bit of humor thrown in. - Jim Foley

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