The Ocora label from Radio France has dedicated itself solely to the preservation and dissemination of recordings that represent different cultures and their instrumental and vocal traditions without artifice of any kind. To that end, L'épinette des Vosges is a delightful volume that offers a view of a box dulcimer found in only a few valleys in the Vosges, the French Comté and Lorraine. It is a distant European cousin to our own Appalachian hammered dulcimer, but is much more elegant in appearance and in the versatility of its tonalities. It is both a solo and accompaniment instrument -- to dancing and songs, that is, not other instruments. There are frets under parts of the strings, distinguishing two groups, the drone strings, or continos, and the melody strings. The melody is played by the left hand plucking the strings or using a slide, and the right hand plays with a pick or a bow. The instrument dates back to about 1619 and was popular -- in various incarnations -- throughout Western Europe. And while it is considered somewhat of an arcane instrument found almost solely in this one region of France, its place in the folk musics of Bulgaria, the Bavarian and Austrian Alps, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Flanders is well-established and popular. There are 19 selections on this album, performed by three épinette des Vosges players: Among them are Jean Francois Dutertre, who is among the foremost authorities on French traditional songs and dances; Jean Ribouillaut, a musician who descends from a long lineage of traditional singers and dancers; and finally, Christophe Toussaint (like Ribouillaut, also from the Vosges), an instrument maker who was trained by his father, one of the last of his generation of épinette makers. The selections here are all traditional, though some have undergone slight transformations over the centuries. The music is, when performed in this manner, so attentive to detail and nuance, more a precious artifact than music to be enjoyed on its own merit -- though I have no doubt anyone who appreciates French folk music from the 16th to 19th centuries will be enthralled by its presentation. The songs themselves are quaint, either about dancing or love or travel. They are catalogued according to their appearance for performance on this particular instrument, making the recording itself seem not only specialized, but also antiquated. Call it the prejudice of a critic who cannot appreciate genius when he hears it, but this is one of the few times Ocora has missed the mark. Usually they try to straddle the line between an accurate academic representation of music and/or a field recording of it, and allow for the passion of a performance to come through. None of that is in evidence here.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek