This exhilarating yet heartfelt album of large-ensemble creative Euro-folk has a somewhat complicated back-story. A conservatory in Lucerne and festival in Altdorf, Switzerland as well as collaborating arts institutes in Slovenia all provided support for the gathering of musicians heard here, with Slovenian accordionist/composer Bratko Bibič and his Madleys joined by Swiss quintet Rämschfädra and Canadian-born euphonium player Shirley Anne Hofmann. The details are presented in the multilingual liner notes, but as Live at Alpentöne begins, the listener is inclined to set the CD booklet aside, thank all the participants involved in bringing Bibič's music to life, and sit back and enjoy the many pleasures that unfold across the disc's 46 minutes. Recorded in August 2007 at Altdorf's Alpentöne festival, the album captures a performance by an 11-member ensemble featuring -- in addition to the leader and Hofmann -- piano, saxophone, flute, piccolo, clarinet, violins, viola, drums, double bass, and more (including second accordionist Roberto Imfeld). The group occupies a thoroughly appealing place where chamber music is enlivened by folk and jazz, where technical precision is stunningly displayed but feeling is paramount. Still, it would be hard to imagine any group of players navigating this music's tricky rhythms more crisply and precisely.
The suite of "Encore Trois W," "Encore Deux W," and "Encore Un W" -- all previously heard on the 2006 Accordion Tribe album Lunghorn Twist -- commences with pianist Sonja Füchslin jumping into what might seem like a straightforward uptempo waltz if not for the fractured time signature emphasized by her strong left hand. A bright piccolo, flute, and clarinet melody is soon joined by the full ensemble, after which anything can happen -- including full-on jazz with saxophonist Vasko Atanasovski and clarinetist Boštjan Gombač cutting loose over the band's collective ebullience, as Hofmann's puffing euphonium reinforces Thomas Estermann's swinging bassline and drummer Marjan Stanič animates the groove. "Encore Deux W" transitions into a warm Euro-folk-classical arrangement suggesting Lars Hollmer's "Augustins Tema" from Utsikter (Live at Alpentöne is dedicated to Hollmer), but the piece also stretches out well past the original Lunghorn Twist track's 3:44 length to over nine minutes here, incorporating Gypsy/Balkan dance flavors and a wild percussion break from Stanič. The accordion-and-whistle title track from Na Domačem Vrtu (In the Family Garden) leaps from Bibič's spaciously recorded solo accordion to a swirling, piccolo-spiked full-ensemble workout in the version here, while the three-part pastoral "Labis Carniolus" switches from sprightly to lyrical themes in a beautiful balance of joy and wistfulness, Matjaž Sekne's downward glissing viola adding a touch of rough abrasion. "Sackamra" (from Bratko Bibič & the Madleys of Bridko Bebič) is introduced with Samlas-like vocal wackiness, but the piece provides the disc's most seriously dramatic moment, a straightforward waltz whose rhythmic shift at the bridge is employed as a powerful compositional device (with a compelling embellishment by Sekne). The bonus studio track "Ramona," featuring Gombač's plaintive singing saw, is a lovely coda to a thoroughly enthralling listening experience.