Bjarte EIKE & Barokksolistene: The Image of Melancholy – BIS 

Bjarte EIKE & Barokksolistene: The Image of Melancholy – BIS SACD 2057, 66:28 (1/28/14) ****½: 

The rambunctious leader of the ale-house gang turns melancholic and leads his troupe on an investigation through folk and Elizabethan idioms to finds the beauty at the heart of sorrow.

(Bjarte Eike; violin/ Berit Norbakken Solset; soprano/ Jon Balke; organ & soundscapes / Milos Valent; viola/ Frederik Bok; lute & baroque guitar/ Kanerva Juutilainen; violin/ Thomas Pitt and Judith-Maria Blomsterberg; cello/ Hans Knut Sveen; harpsichord)

Melancholy is a far richer term than its modern successor, depression. The latter is a recent clinical notion which presupposes the separation of malady and subject, as well as the possibility of a cure or treatment. In contrast, melancholy describes an existential condition, a very shape of the soul, which prompts a special receptivity to an inescapable sadness beyond the self.  As a cultural construct, the condition connects to a wide array of emotions and performances, prescribed routines and rituals, and as we see in this remarkable exploration of its themes, music.

Bjarte Eike, whom we last met on these pages dancing merrily with his Barokksolistene in the context of an ale-house revelry (Ale-house Sessions on the Rubicon label were enthusiastically reviewed on these pages), turns away from the mirth and celebration towards an introspective musing on “sad songs,” about which he says:

“(they) have always affected me the most. They can deepen my sad state of mind and, paradoxically, they may even have a healing effect. For me melancholy is not only synonymous with sadness and despair, it a state harbouring reflection, meditation and relief.”

The thoughtful essay in the liner notes includes a brief survey of the classical conception of ‘melancholia’ (μελαγχολία) and its subsequent revival in Elizabethan England as a self-conscious style, almost an artistic pose in the case of its great exponents John Dowland and Anthony Holborne,

We also learn that the session was prepared by a retreat to the countryside in Sjobygda, Norway, which found the group gathered in an abandoned school-house deep in the forest by a lake. There, six musicians and singer worked through a pile of music, delving deep into the expressive image of melancholy The results are stunning.

However, potent the music-making was in the schoolhouse, it becomes even more so as the recording goes through the unrivaled acoustical magic of the BIS studio. These engineers capture the sound of Mr Eike’s fiddle and the air around it as well as anyone in the business. He is aided by a second violinist, a Violone, a viola a couple of cellos, lute and organ as well as some modest electronic “soundscapes” by ECM artist Jon Balke. Soprano Berit Norbakken Solset is resplendent in six songs, her vibrato-less tone ranging from icy detachment to heartbreaking plangency.

We begin with a Bjarte Eike original Savn. A simple melody against a drone places us in the repose of solitude. Then  strings emerge from the mist, adding a sober resolution, or perhaps the relief mentioned by the leader. Evocative of open spaces and things chilly and forlorn, it does not, however, strike the note of gloom but something stronger and more tender while providing a sense of waiting and openness.  We are  duly welcomed into are in familiar territory with the segue into Holborne’s pavane, Image of Melancholy. The strings are arrayed around the leader in a minor-key mood of sober reflection with the refined gestures of uplift, despondent sighing, and earnest consolation. It is an Elizabethan music of a pure sort and very well played.

We first meet Berit Norbakken Solset, on Dowland’s exquisite lament, Sorrow, Stay. Sounding much like a young Emma Kirkby, she delivers the clever “down,down,down, down, down, I fall” stepwise from the tonic with delicacy and charm. It is a stunning effect and not to be missed.

Traditional music sounds not at all out of place and Bjornsons bruremarsj features Barte’s double-stop droning fiddle on a swaying pulse and simple line. Suddenly we are dancing, but not as in the ale-house performances, but rather a stately, formal Elizabethan galliard with a prominent strumming guitar accompaniment.

Berit is back for a lullaby Gjendines badniat which features some soundscape noodling by Jon Balke. Here she sounds like compatriot Lena Willemark, high praise from this reviewer, as Willemark’s folk tune Gulharpan (on ECM Nordan) is still the unsurpassable height of this kind of Nordic New Folk.  Here the baby dances in mother’s lap, (the translation tells us) in no mood for sleep. The eerie fiddles and organ, though, suggest something far more sober, as does the invocation to Jesus, and one fears that the dance may have ended badly. Bart Eike’s fiddle tries to clarify matters, but the piece is shrouded in poignant ambiguity.

Two paragons of the stile fantasticus, Biber and Buxtehude, follow as a medley. First, an instrumental organ and violin slow movement and then the latter’s Die Kreutztragung receive a gorgeous string and lute setting with a powerful continuo undercurrent supporting the floating soprano. It is far removed from the more typical demonstration of violin virtuosity that I associate with this composer. For this reviewer, it is the most moving piece on the record.

Holborne’s jaunty Muy Linda seems an improbable hybrid. Our gloomy courtier is set to dance to a lively Spanish galliard. There are further surprises in the two traditional numbers which follow. Miles Valent undertakes some heartfelt Sevdalinka wailing to or about his mother. It has a Serbian wedding feel and skates on the edge of farce. The ensuing wedding march is pure Swedish folk with the hardanger fiddle feel and sharp major-minor swings. What rhythmic  precision, though! Everyone is his own drummer. Indeed, this ensemble has the keenest sense of time. Bansul follows, another lullaby. By now it is clear that the singer requires no instrumental accompaniment; her voice fills the room. But Bjarte and Balke on the organ play off her attempts, presumably more successful this time in mollifying the troublesome baby.

Renaissance polyphony follows, and then more Dowland and the ambitious Ye Sacred Muses by William Byrd. On Introducing Susanne, Jon Balke indulges in what seems like a sound check for a prog-rock concert, a real puzzler,  but Devising Susanne amazes. Again, each tune unspools a melancholic subject but then weaves it into a an rich tapestry of great intricacy.  Never does the sonic greyness of so much Elizabethan viol consort music weigh down this recording. And as a result, one feels by the end, buoyed up and oddly hopeful in the what surely could be called dark times (but to the melancholic all times are dark).

What a privilege it would be to see the Mr. Eike and his Barokksolistene live. It seems that folks on the East Coast will have that chance as the group prepares its first stateside visit. The coming tour includes Chicago and Minneapolis and the band’s itinerary can be found here:  Eike and Barokksolistene Tour.

Via this recording, the rest of us can applaud the efforts of this musician who has succeeded in making something fresh and inspired as he pursues his generous and original vision of music beyond boundaries.

—Fritz Balwit

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