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Program: #17-37, Air Date: 09/04/17Over the years we have followed this Baroque violinist with his work in the Bergen Baroque; he begins an American tour with his latest project on October. (This show continues in Part 2.)
Note: These programs are made possible in part by support from the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C. For more information about Norwegian cultural events in the United States or for travel and tourist information, you may consult Facebook and Twitter @NorwayUS.
I. The Images of Melancholy (Barokksolistene) BIS CD 2057.
Conceived by the baroque violinist Bjarte Eike for his period band Barokksolistene, this programme is his very personal ‘image of melancholy’. As he writes in his liner notes, ‘for me, melancholy is not only synonymous with sadness and despair, it is a state also harbouring reflection, meditation and relief.’ The connection between music and melancholy is far from new – at least since the time of the ancient Greeks, and probably long before them, there has been a belief that music has the power to influence our mood, to alleviate sadness or melancholy – or to induce it. Melancholy has at various times been the height of fashion – think of John Dowland, whose motto was: ‘Semper Dowland, semper dolens’ (‘always Dowland, always mourning’). Dowland is of course included here, as is his near-contemporary Anthony Holborne – but there are also a number of later pieces, as well as folk music from Eike’s native Norway and elsewhere. This music, writes Eike, ‘does not belong to any particular style, nationality or period in time; it’s rather a string of tunes that have all had a personal significance to me, and that together form a musical matrimony between a Nordic melancholy, the rich sounds of the Elizabethan consort and a modern approach to music-making.’ Joined by the soprano Berit Norbakken Solset and by the jazz pianist Jon Balke, Eike and his ensemble have created an intensely atmospheric and highly suggestive disc, which richly lives up to its motto – a quote by Victor Hugo: ‘Melancholy is the pleasure of being sad.’
From Gramophone: ‘The most wonderful recording session of my life,’ says Bjarte Eike in the booklet to this disc, and indeed the mood the Norwegian Baroque violinist and director of string band Barokksolistene has created by his programming, together with the overall tenor of the performances, is of the kind that suggests a strong personal involvement.
The core of its 20 tracks is a tapestry of Nordic folk melancholy – a particularly dark and intense brand, which can colour even a wedding march – and the complex, doleful lyricism of 17th-century England, shown in consort pieces by Holborne, Byrd’s noble Ye sacred Muses and, needless to say, Dowland songs. There is also part of a Biber Rosary Sonata, Buxtehude’s simple but heartbreaking Klag-Lied for his father, and further ‘trad’ from Ireland, Scotland and Slovakia (the last both sung and played by violist Milo≈ Valent), while an eerie extra touch comes from the ghostly, intoxicatingly weird backdrops provided for certain tracks by jazz organist Jon Balke. These varied items are brought together in convincingly sequenced groups in which the spirit of improvisation runs high (but not wild) and the differing styles meet on friendly terms, even while each track retains its own integrity and character.
The string-playing throughout has the affecting physicality of folk, whether tugging at your emotions in a lament or stirring your (melancholy) feet with bite and swing in a galliard. There is sweetly fragile singing from soprano Berit Norbakken Solset, slightly uncertain in the English numbers but truly hitting the spot in the Norwegian, demonstrating just what a haunting and beautiful sung language it is.
The disc was recorded mostly in whole takes in Selbu church, 30km outside Trondheim. With its authenticity of atmosphere and quiet ability to move, it is one to lose yourself in on long winter night.
II. Telemann: Harmonsicher Gottes-Dienst—Volume 2 (Bergen Barokk). Toccata Classics CD TOCC 0057.
From Arkivmusic.com: This is Volume 2 in a planned cycle of Georg Philipp Telemann’s complete collection of 72 sacred cantatas for the liturgical year, published under the imposing title “Harmonsicher Gottes-Dienst."
The title was intended to elucidate the dual-use purpose of these works. Like Bach’s liturgical cantatas, Telemann’s were performable at Lutheran church services; but more modest in length and in numbers of performing forces required, as well as far less technically demanding of instrumentalists and singers, unlike Bach’s, they were primarily written for private, at-home devotional singing and playing. To that end, Telemann’s cantatas became available by subscription in 1725, making them the first complete cycle of cantatas for the liturgical year to be published.
I use the word “modest” advisedly. Each cantata, in effect, is a vocal concerto consisting of three movements—a moderate to fast-paced aria, a rhythmically free, declamatory, extended recitative, corresponding to a slow movement, and a moderate to fast-paced concluding aria. The performing forces employed are a single solo voice—in this case, that of countertenor Franz Vitzthum—and a trio of instruments—here played by Bjarte Eike, violin; Hans Knut Sveen, harpsichord and organ; and Markku Luolajan-Mikkola, cello. What makes the vocal parts less technically challenging than those in Bach’s cantatas is not that the arias and recitatives are in themselves fashioned for beginners (certainly the concluding arias, “Flüchtige Schatten,” from the Cantata Jauchzet, frolocket and “Herr der starken Himmelsheere” from the Cantata Liebe, die vom Himmel stammet require more than a learner’s permit). Rather, it’s the way in which Telemann sets voice against instruments. Bach, more often than not, treats his voices as independent lines that engage in contrapuntal dialogue with the instruments. There is not always pitch support or rhythmic orientation for the singer, who is set against the instrumental voices rather than with them. In contrast, Telemann’s settings are of a more homophonic nature. Even when the instruments engage in furioso flurries, there is a rhythmic and harmonic regularity that always coincides with the voice on the beat to lend support and orientation. In this, Telemann’s manner and style of aria setting strikes me as closer to that of Handel than to that of Bach.
That aside, Telemann’s musical invention is infectious. Except for the recitatives, which, by nature, take on a more serious tone, the arias, like many of Bach’s, make no distinction between a sacred and a secular style. If you didn’t know that the words were about religious faith and praise for God and Jesus, you might just as easily think you were listening to a late Baroque opera aria about a young man defending the honor of his lover or some such other peacock posturing. The arias are, without exception, tuneful, bracing, invigorating, wonderfully entertaining, and great fun.
So perfect a reproduction of the female alto voice is Franz Vitzthun’s countertenor that even a really close listening might not convince you it belonged to a male. He is truly amazing. And I have nothing but praise for the instrumentalists comprising the Bergen Barokk. Not a foot, or, should I say, a finger goes amiss. This is a brilliant release, right down to its booklet containing a scholarly essay, complete texts, and documentation on the instruments, performance materials, and the editions used, all in three languages. If I were giving an award for Baroque disc of the year, this one would win it. Urgently recommended.
—First Sunday of Advent: Erwachet zum Kriegen.
—First Sunday of Christmas: Erquickendes Wunder der ewigen Gnade.
—Second Sunday of Christmas: Jauchzet, frolocket, der Himmel ist offen.
—First Sunday of New Year: Halt ein mit deinem Wetterstrahle.
—Second Sunday after Epiphany: Ist Widerwärtigkeit den Frommen eigen.
—Fifth Sunday after Epiphany: Liebe, die vom Himmel stammet
III. The Alehouse Sessions (Barokksolistene) Rubicon CD RCD1017.
The Alehouse Sessions – curated and devised by Bjarte Eike – is an ever changing and evolving insight into the music of the English 17th Century tavern. It gives audiences a window into this tumultuous period through Purcell overtures, English sea shanties, and Scandinavian folk songs thrown in for good measure. These sessions have already been hailed as ‘irresistible’ [The Times], ‘superb’ [The Scotsman] and ‘fabulously unrestrained’ [The Guardian], and they have diverted away from the traditional concert model by ‘creating the effect of a late night jamming session’ [BBC Music Magazine].
This diversion from the traditional concert model is what is at the heart of the Sessions. Through the medium of these well-loved tunes, a story of the period is interwoven into the music making; creating a unique environment between audience and performer. Bjarte Eike goes into detail about what makes this special:
“The signature of this project is the interaction on stage between the players and the audience. If it has to be put in a historical context, the project draws its inspiration from the Shakespearian theatre where there was a direct communication between stage and hall- going in-between the story that was being told and occurring events happening in the hall. This is in stark contrast to the 19th century drama with dark halls looking at the “gods” on stage. It is the latter which the classical mainstream industry has adapted fully.”
Using their own arrangement of the tunes, these ‘Alehouse Boys’ combine this unique format with humour, an unrivalled virtuosity and flare for improvisation.
The group have also embarked on further projects and collaborations in the core classical genre with their performances of the reconstruction of Bach’s St Mark Passion, Handel and Mozart operas with the Norwegian National Opera and the Den Ny Opera in Denmark respectively, and a fully staged Handel Messiah with Netia Jones and the Bergen National Opera in Norway.
‘The Alehouse Sessions’ is one of the first major discs for the group and follows hot on the heels of ‘The Image of Melancholy’, which explores the use of melancholy in music throughout the centuries. In the same month it was released, it won ‘International Recording of the Year’ at the Danish P2 Prisen Award. ‘The Alehouse Sessions’ will be slightly more cheerful.
Bjarte Eike and Barokksolistene are based in Norway. They are very grateful to receive support from the government and community of Norway as proud ambassadors of Norwegian culture.
From The Guardian: What do you like to listen to – and how would you describe it? Music inevitably gets put into pigeonholes, however much we resist. But every so often, from a classical viewpoint at least, comes a sign that the labels might be losing their grip. On Monday night in London, you could have heard a group of Scandinavia’s finest baroque musicians tearing into a mainly folk set in Bush Hall, or, over at the Barbican, the Britten Sinfonia teaming up with DJ Jeff Mills. More than a century after the gramophone detached the enjoyment of music from its live performance and accentuated a growing divide between “popular” music and the “clever-clever” stuff, is the border between the two being dismantled again?
Time was when the two shared the same homes. The Alehouse Sessions – the brainchild of Norwegian violinist Bjarte Eike – are informal concerts taking us back to Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, when theatres were closed, church music was banned and pubs were suddenly full of highly trained musicians wanting to perform for money. Eike and his period-performance group, Barokksolistene, aim to recreate the spirit of these gatherings. The Bush Hall concert, which came between performances at the Salisbury and Dresden festivals, came complete with a pop-up craft beer stand at the back of the hall.Eike’s period-performance credentials are impeccable – the first person to graduate from Bergen’s prestigious Grieg Academy specifically as a baroque violinist, he led Concerto Copenhagen for several years. Barokksolistene’s most recent project was playing for Netia Jones’s new staging of Messiah at the Bergen National Opera The Alehouse Boys are an ever-evolving offshoot of Barokksolistene, containing a core of nine who all have other irons in the fire. Double bass player Johannes Lundberg is also a jazz musician. Hans Knut Sveen, who plays harmonium, is a faculty dean at Bergen University. Viola player Per Buhre has his own music theatre group. Percussionist Helge Andreas Norbakken brings baroque, jazz and west African Wolof rhythms to the mix. Regular singer Tom Guthrie, one of two UK members, is also a stage director – he was absent from Bush Hall as he was across town overseeing Classical Opera’s new production of Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus.
The authenticity being aimed for is less that of performance style – though the calibre of playing is unimpeachable – and more that of experience. The audience stands, beer in hand, and listens to Eike chat from the platform. Some heckle. Before anyone is more than a pint down, Eike manages to get the crowd chanting a call-and-response number – this is not very classical, certainly not very British. But it is exhilarating. It’s a very theatrical show, thanks largely to the comic stagecraft of Steven Player, a dancer, guitarist and actor who is at first a Baldrick-like fall guy in the group’s interplay but later supplies some serious and even dashing traditional footwork.
The Bush Hall set – which partly follows the group’s recent studio recording, celebrating 10 years since the project took shape – is dominated by folk songs from the UK and Scandinavia and by dance tunes from Playford’s The English Dancing Master, published in 1651; some Purcell slips in too. Ships during this time brought music to London, along with spices and the plague, and it’s striking how many of the songs are about sailors. Even more striking is how differently they can be performed. Take a song such as I Drew My Ship into the Harbour: the late lamented folk band Bellowhead sang it as an upbeat number (lead singer Jon Boden described it as “rather poppy”); the Alehouse Boys, however, make it a moment of focus in an otherwise energetic set, Buhre the gentle but pointed singer. Moreover, on disc, with Guthrie’s voice almost cracking, it is a thing of held-breath beauty, so fragile it might break at any moment.
The idea that musicians can be like-minded, even if they come from vastly differing traditions, and that music might be just as enjoyable in a pub as in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (where Barokksolistene return in October) or the Vienna Konzerthaus – where Eike got 800 concert-goers singing an English drinking song – shouldn’t feel transgressive. The Alehouse Sessions remain an exception, but the balance could be shifting. Think of Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, a star of last year’s Proms, who has worked with musicians in pretty much every genre and is fond of wryly reminding audiences that “every piece of music you know and love was almost certainly written by a living composer”. Or of the Night Shift Concerts, given by members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in London pubs. As Barokksolistene’s slogan reminds us, “It’s just old pop music”. Performers like this are unlocking the joy in this music, and that might be the most valuable authenticity of all.
1 Wallom Green - from ”the English dancing master” 1651 (John Playford 1623-1686). Arr. BE
2 Curtain tune - from ”Timon of Athens” (Henry Purcell 1659-1695). Arr. BaS
3 Lead me - aria: Oh! Lead me to some peaceful gloom, (Purcell) + Italian Rant (EDM). Arr. BaS/BE
4 Haul Away Joe - Trad. English sea shanty. Arr. BaS/TG, Lyrics: TG
5 Johnny Faa - Trad Scottish tune from 17th century. Arr. BE
6 The hole in the wall - Hornpipe from Abdelazer (Purcell). Arr. BaS/BE
7 Virgin Queen set - Virgin Queen + Stingo + Bobbing Joe (EDM). Arr. BE/BaS
8 Pass around the grog - Trad sea shanty. Arr. TG
9 Travel set - Springar fra Bjerkreim – Norwegian, Kat. Oggie from Scotland, Contillion – from Mestmachers collection of tunes, Norway, Første brudestyk´- wedding tune from Denmark, The Shaalds o’Foula – trad Shetland.
Arr: BE/BaS, except Springar fra Bjerkreim: Helge Andreas Norbakken
10 I drew my ship - I drew my ship into the harbour – trad English ballade from 19th Century. Arr. BE/BaS
11 Carolan’s Cup - Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738). Arr. BaS/BE
12 The Canadian set - Trad Canadian Reels, aka 'La traversée' after the band Le Vent du Nord. Arr. BE
13 Leave her Johnny - trad English sea shanty. Arr. & lyrics: TG
EIKE, HOLBORNE, DOWLAND, BIBER, BUXTEHUDE, Ó CATHÁIN, BALKE, BYRD, GOW, Georg Philipp Telemann, John Playford 1623-1686, Henry Purcell 1659-1695,
BIS CD 2057, CD TOCC 0057, CD RCD1017