There seems to be something magical about the number “6” when you’re talking about fiddles. Maybe that many fiddlers reaches a kind of critical mass that sets off a chain reaction of some sort. At any rate, when the six fiddlers in question are six star-caliber women from across the Britanno-Nordic musical realm, what you wind up with is some really, really good music.
These thoughts come while immersed in the opening track of String Sisters Live, a group of tunes put together of songs written for Catriona Macdonald (“Shetland Fiddle Diva”) and Liz Knowles (“Kinyon’s Jig,” “Kinyon’s Reel,” actually written for her grandmother), with one by Lad O’Beirne to round it out. It’s a collection firmly in the traditional mold, notwithstanding the number of new (or newish) works included. Liz Carroll wrote both “The Champaign Jig Goes Columbia” (do I sense a campus tour here?) and “Pat & Al’s Jig,” while Annbjørg Lien wrote “G-strings” to welcome her co-conspirators to Norway, where this disc was recorded — then turned around and dusted off “The Horsebell Tune,” a traditional Norwegian song (and an ethereal, somehow otherworldly one, at that.). Emma Härdelin and Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh put together a combination of “Saviour of the World” (from Estonia) and “Gabhaim Molta Bride” (from Ireland) that is seamless. The vocals lend a particular kind of poignancy to that combination that you don’t hear often, no matter how hard people try. It’s a haunting track.
I mentioned critical mass. What I’m thinking of is the sound, its quality and resonance. It becomes truly orchestral, particularly when backed by a few non-fiddle players (Tore Bruvoll, guitar; Conrad Ivitsky, double bass; James Mackintosh, percussion and drums; and David Milligan, piano). There’s a richness here, a depth that I wasn’t expecting (although I should have known). Milligan’s piano, in particular, lends an almost Brahmsian scale from “Shetland Fiddle Diva” pretty much all the way through. I know, I know, it goes with the territory, but it is delicious to hear. (And catch “The Matchmaking Song” — superb, and with a nice edge to it.) Add to that the amazingly complex polyphony the group builds up, again and again, throwing the solo passages into high relief (and giving us a good picture, one after another, of six amazing virtuosos.)
And it’s live. The energy is amazing, and it all comes through in the crystal clear sound. Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or just yell.
I usually figure a collection like this is going to have one or two really good tracks, a couple not so great, and the rest mostly OK or a little better. This one is special, from the opening of “Shetland Fiddle Diva” (not, let me note, your standard “trad album” opening, by any means) all the way through. Flawless musicianship is a given: it has energy, it has power, and it has magic from beginning to end. I think I’m in love.
(Grappa Musikkforlag/Compass Records, 2009)