Hills, Herdman And Mangsen

After spending most of the day entertaining elementary and middle school children, singers Anne Hills, Priscilla Herdman and Cindy Mangsen could be forgiven for acting a little daffy during their performance at Trinity Episcopal Church in Takoma Park Thursday night. In fact, they could have been excused for a lot worse once the giggles and one-liners gave way to a series of beautifully harmonized holiday themes.

Sponsored by the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, the concert was largely inspired by the trio's "Voices of Winter" album, a collection of seasonal pieces that range from the sublime and comforting to the silly and tongue-twisting. Blessed with pure and complementary voices, the singers took turns handling the lead parts amid layers of wraparound or dovetailing harmonies. Save for a few holiday chestnuts, the concert was devoted to finely crafted original tunes as well as a diverse mixture of material from such writers as Maddy Prior, Tommy Thompson and Beth Nielsen Chapman.

So tight and appealing was the group's vocal blend that several songs shone brightly without any accompaniment at all, while other tunes benefited from simple finger-style guitar arrangements or a colorful meld of banjo, concertina and percussion. Besides spreading a lot of good cheer, the trio also performed several bittersweet ballads that quietly underscored Mangsen's credo: "It's not a concert unless you laugh and cry."

--Mike Joyce

Eroica

Until the Eroica String Quartet began to play Thursday evening at the Library of Congress, its name--derived from the most revolutionary symphony ever written (Beethoven's Third)--seemed presumptuous. But after the first few bars of Mendelssohn's Quartet No. 1, the Eroica's rapturously beautiful, utterly convincing sound brought clouds of superlatives to mind, as well as the realization that the quartet's blend of real scholarship and passionate commitment to 19th-century performance style is indeed something new. Perhaps "new" should be qualified: The fingerings, bowings, phrasings, vibrato, string tensions, portamento (sliding between notes) and much more constitute a mode that was crowded into limbo by a much steelier, more "objective" modern style, and then simply disappeared. And now the old has become new again.

Obviously, the most rigorous research can never wholly reconstruct the sonic realms of romantic composers, but the Eroica Quartet's Mendelssohn, Beethoven (the "Harp" Quartet, Op. 74) and Schumann (the Quartet in A, Op. 41, No. 3) shared a lovely, low-power but paradoxically intense tone quality that felt restorative in all senses, brightly candle-lit and wonderfully right. And what was missing was not missed: a glossy, vibrato-laden, hyperactive sheen encasing music that wasn't written for it.

The issue looms too large for a brief review, but these superb British musicians (Peter Hanson and Lucy Howard, violins; Gustav Clarkson, viola; David Watkin, cello) must be heard for their revelatory fusion of deep analysis that has become intuitive and their moment-to-moment spontaneity of expression.

--Ronald Broun