SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
SEQUENTIA – The Rheingold Curse – A Germanic Saga of Greed and Revenge from the Medieval Icelandic Edda – Sequentia/Benjamin Bagby, et al – Marc Aurel Edition
Published on June 17, 2008
As an Ethnomusicologist this disc is particularly interesting to me as a window into ancient and even present peoples’ ideas and culture. I would briefly define Ethnomusicology as the study of people making music, including all social and cultural aspects that are transmitted through oral tradition, like the Icelandic Edda. This disc was created by Sequentia from words found in the Old Norse Poetic Edda written in Iceland sometimes in the 1200s from even older Germanic oral traditional tales; basically it’s a modern reconstruction of northern European bardic traditions and Iceland’s Codex Regius (The King’s Manuscript). The Codex Regius was written in Iceland in the 1200s but not discovered until 1643. At about that time it was sent as a present to the Danish king and for centuries stored in the Royal Library in Copenhagen – in 1971 it was rightly returned to Iceland. From the historical/cultural perspective these texts are “fossils” of oral traditions and make up a good part of Central European, Norse and Icelandic mythology.
Apparently these ancient oral bardic traditions (now written and sung) began at the time of the end of the Roman Empire occupation of central Europe in the mid 400s. These are legends based on names of places and real and probably imagined people as well, freely mixed with old Germanic gods, cunning dwarves, dragons, shape-changers, magical swords and horses, supernatural beings and talking birds; these tales were heard for centuries as told by bards and minstrels and formed part of many people’s tribal history. After the Romans went home Christianity was imposed, new stories were heard and incorporated, and for all practical purposes all were lost in time. However, these stories lived in the language of the Vikings in Iceland and were copied in manuscript in the 13th Century under the name of the Poetic Edda and as such they are the most important source known to us on Norse and Germanic heroic legends.
The Eddic poems were published in their German translation by the Brothers Grimm in 1815; Richard Wagner used them as the principal source for his massive Ring des Nibelung four operas music-drama cycle. Although the Edda was the domain of ancient bards and minstrels no written musical sources of these poems’ rendition are known to exist. However, in modern Iceland there still exists an ancient form of bardic sung oral poetry known as rímur (it dates back to the 15th Century), which provided the much needed example for primitive song.
The rímur styled Edda is ideally suited to Sequentia’s sensitivity to idealized medieval musical color and delicacy of phrase even within the boundaries or limitations imposed by primitive musical instruments and the ranges of the different voice ensembles required for the different sets of the story. This is a well controlled process which results in a performance radiant in spirit and sound, even when the subject is death, which it often is. Sequentia’s delivery is absolutely impeccable and above all entertaining.
The Edda as presented here by Sequentia includes tales of envy, gold-lust, revenge and their impact on the most sacred and holy of human institutions: the family. To make it short, it’s a story of love, new loves, passion, jealousy, revenge, courage, getting even, virility, death, greed, violence, repentance, savages, corresponded love, unrequited love, more death, renewed jealousy, resentment, getting even again, more revenge, getting older, renewed repentance, punishment, remorse, forgiveness, natural death (someday), while dying being very much alive. All of it great stuff and to the sound of music!
The instruments used for this performance by the ensemble Sequentia included 6-string lyres (medieval harps), 4 string fiddles (a predecessor to the violin), wooden flutes and swan bone flutes reconstructed from archæological remains, and a traditional Kwakiutl caribou-skin frame drum from Northern Canada.
The sound was recorded in five-channel and stereo Direct Stream Digital (DSD) in Cologne, Germany on 2-5 September, 2001 and it is absolutely perfect for the voices, the sound of the instruments such as the fiddles in Disc 1 – Track 3, and the marvelous sound of the Kwakiutl caribou drum and a single flute on D2 – Track 4 for example.
Final words: in my view this is a very important recording for our “present” and I highly recommend it as a “window” to a very rich cultural past. Impeccable singing and wonderful sounds.
— John Nemaric