25th Anniversary Celebration gathers favorite material from what is arguably Ireland’s leading traditional ensemble. A quarter-century together, Altan here roams into the orchestral, cinematic, epic realm. Recorded with the Irish radio-television orchestra, the songs alternate lots of strings with the Co. Donegal fiddled-and-strummed-expertise that established this band’s reputation.
Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s direct, wistful vocals offer a contemplative, yearning quality that in this production luckily finds sensitive balance with the massed instrumentation. The group manages to keep their accompaniment muted to allow her singing, often in her native Gaelic, to float over the woodwinds and flutes. These may remind listeners of the countryside and its wandering lovers, about which the lyrics often reflect, as on “Cití na gCumann”, or the closing lullaby “Dún Do Shúil”.
Bouzouki player Ciarán Curran, fiddler Ciarán Tourish, guitarist Mark Kelly, and accordionist Dermot Byrne all deliver solid — if rather understated at times, as is necessary in the concert setting — backing, along with Ní Mhaonaigh’s own fiddling. The melancholy airs that this group favors may be heightened by the dedication of this album to Mairéad’s father, himself a musician in a long line of such.
How does this soulful music manage to be honest rather than sentimental? The band lets up and lets the strings take over, and then returns to gently assert its own dynamics. Often, on other records, this combination of orchestra with other genre players washes the tunes in an overlay of symphonic gloss, and vocalists may struggle to be heard above perhaps 90 players, rather than four or five bandmates. But the group on “Dónal agus Mórag” holds back so Ní Mhaonaigh’s articulation of tricky Gaelic staccato can be heard clearly, freed in the verse and then backed by the chorus. As this song builds, so gradually does the orchestra, ending in percussive triumph. This depth highlights the back-and-forth nature of this production (handled by the band with arranger Fiachra Trench), which offers more scope than a conventional folk recording.
Fans of the Chieftains, whose music over their own half-century evolved into this type of collaboration, may welcome a chance to hear Altan in this venue. “Comb Your Hair and Curl It/Gweebarra Bridges” represent a similar melding of traditional with orchestral arrangements. While Altan’s own intimate early efforts (the first five studio recordings released in America on Green Linnet are recommended over their later EMI or Narada New Age-tinged albums) offer the best introductions to this group’s charm, this well-chosen sampler from ten albums may tempt newcomers towards their back catalogue.
The pacing of the tunes accentuates their stately quality. “Molly na gCuach Ní Chuilleannáin” recalls pre-synthesizer Clannad (from the same district as Altan) with its massed vocals and rhythmic pace. They cover one of Clannad’s best tunes, “Gleanntain Ghlas Ghaoth Dhobhair”, which was adapted into The Shamrock Shore, itself well sung by both Paul Brady and Horslips. This typical interplay of the Irish tradition with its modern interpreters shows Altan’s ability to popularize its heritage while staying close to its roots, which are in Gaoth Dhobhair on the remote northwest coast of Co. Donegal.
The Christmas tune “Soilse na Nollaig” and the standby “As I Roved Out” slow the direction down a bit too much, but what follows is memorable. This is “The Sunset”, composed by Seamus Quinn and Cathal McConnell, all the way from their 1987 début. Its gently rippling melody, once rendered by their late flautist Frankie Kennedy, deserves its reprise here alongside Byrne’s nimble support. With such a range of feeling and expression of moods that Altan conveys, their innovations here show continued love for the music and a delight in delivering it with respect and affection.