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West Ocean String Quartet celebrates 10 years

The collaboration among the four proved fresh and inspiring. It has led to three superb recordings: "Unwrapping Dreams," "The Guiding Moon" (with guest flutist Matt Molloy), and "Ae Fond Kiss" (with guest vocalist Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill), the last launched in late December of 2009 and arriving too late for consideration in the Irish Echo's list of the top 30 albums for last year.

I'm redressing that omission here, and this CD will be grandfathered into the list for 2010. The album is simply too good to be passed over in any year.

Everything about "Ae Fond Kiss" reflects the precision of classical and the spirit of Irish traditional. It is a difficult meld of styles that WOSQ brings off with consummate care and finesse.

Of the 11 album tracks, six are purely instrumental. Two were composed by Martin: "Planxty Stackallan," written in the trad-baroque idiom of Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738), and "Packie Bonner's," a jig named for a well-known Irish football player. WOSQ plays these tunes with silky grace and rejuvenating joy.

The other instrumental tracks are traditional: "Esther's Reel," which Seamus McGuire previously recorded with his brother Manus and Jackie Daly on Buttons and Bows' debut CD in 1984; the traditional air melody of Robert Burns's song "Ae Fond Kiss"; "Reel Beatrice," a merge in sensibility of J. S. Bach and Joseph Bouchard, the Quebecois fiddler who recorded the tune in 1938 (Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll also recorded it on her self-titled album in 1988); and "Out on the Ocean." All four of these tracks are simultaneously lively and lovely.

Former Skara Brae member Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill sings five songs on the album, and the lone traditional one, "Slieve Gallen Braes," is in English. Her voice, normally magnificent, sounds slightly attenuated in this song, even with WOSQ's expert instrumental support.

The album's brilliant, extraordinarily poignant centerpiece is a four-song cycle called "Oilean na Marbh" ("Island of the Dead"), in which Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill's voice and interpretation are assured, impassioned, and utterly transcendent. The music was written by Neil Martin, and the lyrics in Irish were written by Cathal O Searcaigh.

Commissioned in 2006 by fiddler Dermot McLaughlin for the Diversions festival sponsored by Temple Bar Cultural Trust in Dublin, this song cycle was inspired by a small island called Oilean na Marbh off the coast of Donegal. There, children who died without baptism were unceremoniously buried in unconsecrated ground, according to Catholic Church precept or practice of the 18th and 19th centuries. The souls of these children were assumed to be in Limbo for eternity, and the four songs of "Ta M'aingeal Beag Geal" ("My Bright Little Angel"), "Nuair a Tchim" ("When I See"), "Ag Siul Fa na Cladai" ("I'm Walking by the Shores"), and "Codlaigh, Codlaigh" ("Sleep, Sleep") pull no punches in expressing the anguish and anger of a mother whose unbaptized son was interred on the island.

They delve into inconsolable maternal misery, infused by Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill with a quiet tenderness and aching beauty that transform them into the pinnacle of songcraft. Linked instrumentally as one by WOSQ, these four songs will break your heart.

Recorded in Ramelton and Letterkenny, "Ae Fond Kiss" is the finest album to date by the West Ocean String Quartet, now in their eleventh year together. During that time, this formidable foursome has only grown in strength and stature.

Visit www.wosq.com to acquire the recording (West Ocean Records WORCD 102).

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